St. Louis attorney calls on Congress to set national standards for police use of force
Standing in the annex of the Washington Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church Sunday, St. Louis attorney Pamela Meanes told congregants that increased attention to African Americans shot by police has yet to translate into substantial changes to laws and policies.
The immediate past president of the National Bar Association, Meanes was the fourth speaker in the church’s lecture series on “The Ferguson Effect.” She spoke about the impact of Ferguson on the legal system.
“The legal effect on Ferguson is that we’ve shined a light on where the gaping holes are. In a year we haven’t fixed any of them,” said Meanes, a partner at Thompson Coburn. “We have debated cameras, but does Missouri have a camera law? No. We’ve debated training. Has Missouri passed a codified training program? No.”
“The only thing that has passed (in Missouri) is that you all won’t get charged as much for a ticket,” said Meanes, referring to the state’s municipal court reform.
On the federal level, Meanes said the growing acceptance of body cameras is promising, as are President Obama’s efforts to pay for them. But she said Congress also needs to do more, especially with the case law that regulates police use of force nationally, Tennessee vs. Garner.
“Have you ever heard police officers say I feared for my life? I thought he had a gun? I thought they were going to hit me?” Meanes asked the congregants.
“All the time,” they replied.
“That comes from Tennessee vs. Garner,” Meanes said, “This particular case says … that an officer may use that measure of force that he or she believes is reasonable in order to stop the danger that her or she perceives. Believes. Perceives. I’ve been practicing law for 19 years and that is called discretion.”
“So let’s play this out just a little bit. If in fact I fear you even before I see you, you’ve already perceived to me to be a danger,” Meanes said. “If I have concepts of who you are—a thug, just a Negro from the street, a no good, low-down dirty dog … then I will treat you like something I have to remove.”
Meanes said because the law relied on an officer’s perception of danger, the officer’s beliefs and biases can impact the outcome. She compared the survival of James Holmes in Colorado to the quick deaths of John Crawford and Tamir Rice as examples.
“How is it possible for a white man to walk into a theater, loaded up ‘cause he saw a Batman movie, shoot up over 114 people and the police calm him down … but they think they see a gun on you ... and in 0.8 seconds you are dead? It’s called the use of discretion,” Meanes said.
To counteract possible biases, the National Bar Association wants Congress to pass a federal law that defines the circumstances of an officer’s discretion; when to escalate a situation, when to de-escalate, when to use a Taser, and when to use a gun.
“There has to be a standard definition and not just what the officer believes,” Meanes explained.
The association also wants Congress to make it a crime for an officer to tamper with a body camera. Both recommendations are part of the legal reforms Meanes advocated for as president of the National Bar Association over the past year.
Whether you're black or white baby, here's what I care about: I have a fourteen-year-old son. I care about keeping him alive. - Pamela Meanes
On a local level, the National Bar Association is calling on municipalities to adopt mental health screenings for police and require de-escalation and diversity training. Meanes is continuing to push for those local reforms in her new role as chair of the St. Louis County Legal Redress Committee.
At Washington Tabernacle on Sunday, Meanes called on the congregants and members of black churches generally, to hold officials and candidates accountable leading up to the 2016 elections.
“It’s election time,” Meanes said. “You all have got to stop saying whether you’re Democrat or Republican. How about you’re just for justice?”
“I want to challenge the church. The church was the center, the heart of every civil rights movement,” Meanes said. “And it’s the absence of the church that has made police brutality … a bunch of moments and not a movement. Don’t you know that we all play a role in this?”
But in doing so, Meanes added, African Americans need to speak up when other African Americans act unjustly.
“We call out white folk when they do us wrong, but when black folk do us wrong we are silent. It makes us look hypocritical,” Meanes said. “When Governor Nixon declared a state of emergency and then he called for a curfew, we all said that looked like sundown and it was wrong. When the mayor of Baltimore called for a state of emergency and a curfew we all shut up. If it was wrong for Nixon to do it, heck, it was wrong for her to do it, too.”
“That’s why nobody pays attention to what we do — because we don’t have a standard that is applicable to all individuals. Whether you’re a black or white baby, here’s what I care about: I have a fourteen-year-old son. I care about keeping him alive,” Meanes said.
Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.