Tool for police reform rarely used by local prosecutors

Tool for police reform rarely used by local prosecutors

In this May 31, 2019, photo provided by the Auburn Police Department via the Port of Seattle Police Department, Auburn police Officer Jeff Nelson, second from right, is shown at the scene where he shot and killed Jesse Sarey in a grocery store parking lot in Auburn, Wash. Although Nelson has been investigated in more than 60 use-of-force cases since 2012, he wasn’t placed on the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s “potential impeachment disclosure” list, or Brady List, which flags officers whose credibility is in question due to misconduct, until after he was charged in Sarey’s killing. (Auburn Police Department via Port of Seattle Police Department via AP)

SEATTLE (AP) — Isaiah Obet was behaving erratically and in mental distress in 2017 when Officer Jeff Nelson ordered his police dog to attack and then shot Obet in the torso. Obet fell to the ground and Nelson fired again, fatally shooting Obet in the head. The officer said his life was in danger.

The next year, Joseph Allen was crossing in front of Nelson’s patrol car when the officer swerved and pinned him against a fence, breaking both his ankles. His justification: Allen was a dangerous criminal.

In 2019, Nelson scuffled with Jesse Sarey after attempting to arrest him for disorderly conduct. He punched Sarey seven times and then shot him in the torso. After Sarey fell to the ground, Nelson killed him with a second shot to the forehead. He claimed Sarey was on his hands and knees “ready to spring forward,” which later was disproved by both video and witnesses.

Nelson’s actions in all three cases were outlined in a criminal complaint, eyewitness accounts, and police dashcam video obtained by The Associated Press. In the past decade, Nelson has been investigated in more than 60 use-of-force cases that involved choking suspects until they passed out, severe dog bites, and physical force that required medical care. But he was not on the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s list that flags officers whose credibility is in question due to misconduct – a designation that must be shared with defense attorneys.

Nelson was only added to its “potential impeachment disclosure” list, or Brady List, after he was charged with killing Sarey. A trial is set for February 2022. Mohammad Hamoudi, a federal public defender, said given Officer Nelson’s history, all of his cases should be reviewed. And he hopes his story will encourage prosecutors to track excessive force cases involving other police officers.

“It has to do with respect for the rules, the laws, and others,” he said. “If an officer lacks impulse control or the ability to exercise informed judgment, you can call into question how he investigates cases.”

The murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer has sparked a national conversation on police reform, ranging from defunding departments to enhancing training. But reform activists and civil rights advocates say prosecutors already have powerful tools at their disposal to curb bad behavior by police: They can use Brady Lists to shine a light on troubled officers, and they can then refuse to put forward cases from those officers with tarnished histories.

FILE – In this Aug. 24, 2020, file photo, family members and supporters of Jesse Sarey gather outside the King County courthouse in Kent, Wash., after Auburn police Officer Jeffrey Nelson pleaded not guilty to charges in the killing of Sarey in 2019. Although Nelson has been investigated in more than 60 use-of-force cases since 2012, he wasn’t on the King County prosecuting attorney’s “potential impeachment disclosure” list, or Brady List, which flags officers whose credibility is in question due to misconduct, until after being charged in Sarey’s death. An Associated Press investigation based on hundreds of documents and interviews with prosecutors, defense attorneys and experts on police reform found that prosecutors do not always used the lists to ensure accountability. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times, File via AP)

The AP found that prosecutors sometimes don’t even compile the lists and that wide disparities in what offenses land officers on them are prevalent across the country, with excessive force often failing to merit inclusion.

The AP also found that many prosecutors and police unions have gone to great lengths to keep Brady List information from becoming public.

Now, defense attorneys, public defenders, civil rights groups and even some prosecutors are calling for an increased use of Brady Lists and a broadening of the offenses that will land a police officer on them, while police unions are resisting those efforts.

Amy Parker of the King County Department of Public Defense called it imperative for officers’ violent histories to be exposed.

“As a career public defender, I have listened to prosecutors routinely make the argument that defendants with prior unlawful uses of force/crimes of violence are more prone to violence and lack credibility,” she said in an email. “If prosecutors are going to apply that standard to defendants, then the same standard should apply to police officers when judging their conduct.”

King County prosecutor Dan Satterberg argues excessive force doesn’t make an officer less credible. “An officer who was accused of using too much force in an unrelated arrest has nothing to do with the impeachment of their veracity,” he said.

Brady Lists stem from a ruling in the 1963 Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland mandating prosecutors turn over exculpatory evidence to defense attorneys, including information that could be used to question the officers’ credibility. But the ruling did not define the steps prosecutors and police departments must take to ensure defendants are informed or whether lists of troubled officers must be kept at all.

The result, critics say, is a mishmash of policies that vary state to state — and even jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

FILE – In this Aug. 24, 2020, file photo, Auburn police Officer Jeff Nelson appears in King County Superior Court court in Kent, Wash. Nelson pleaded not guilty to charges in the killing of Jesse Sarey in 2019. Although Nelson has been investigated in more than 60 use-of-force cases since 2012, he wasn’t on the King County prosecuting attorney’s “potential impeachment disclosure” list, or Brady List, which flags officers whose credibility is in question due to misconduct, until after being charged in Sarey’s death. An Associated Press investigation based on hundreds of documents and interviews with prosecutors, defense attorneys and experts on police reform found that prosecutors do not always used the lists to ensure accountability. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times, File via AP)

Prosecutors in Atlanta, Chicago, Tulsa, and Pittsburgh told the AP that they don’t track officers with disciplinary problems, and Milwaukee prosecutors only listed officers who have been convicted of crimes.

The Dallas County district attorney’s list contained 192 names, with infractions ranging from making false statements to convictions for theft, assault, and driving under the influence. The Suffolk County, Massachusetts, prosecutor’s list included Boston officers who lied on their timesheets or embezzled funds. Louisiana’s Orleans Parish district attorney tracked officers who committed crimes, lied, or drove dangerously, but not violent arrests.

Dishonesty lands an officer on the list in Detroit, Denver, and Seattle, but using excessive force does not.

The Phoenix district attorney, along with prosecutors in Orange County, Florida, and Los Angeles, were among the few the AP found who include excessive use of force cases on their lists.

“It’s like there’s a huge continuum and the result is you don’t have the same procedures being followed not only across the country but within individual states,” said Will Aitchison, an attorney with Portland, Oregon-based Labor Relations Information Systems, which represents officers after they’ve appealed discipline orders.

Some states have attempted to pass legislation that would address the lack of consistency, including the Washington State Legislature, which approved a bill this year requiring county prosecutors to develop written protocols for collecting potential impeachment information by July 2022.

The California Legislature approved a bill last year that required prosecutors to maintain a list of officers who have had “sustained findings for conduct of moral turpitude or group bias,” but Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed the measure due to the cost of such “a significant state mandate.”

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When Larry Krasner was elected Philadelphia district attorney in 2017, his staff discovered a “do not call” list of police officers that had been compiled by a previous prosecutor.

The officers had a history of lying, bias, and excessive force and were barred from testifying “absent explicit permission from the highest levels of the district attorney’s office.”

Krasner shared the list with defense attorneys, who used the information to challenge the convictions of people imprisoned by testimony from those officers and has continued to provide timely Brady material to public defenders.

“When my client goes for a preliminary arraignment first appearance in court where they set bail, the prosecutor might disclose 20 to 30 or 40 pages of materials that they’ve generated on a particular police officer,” Philadelphia public defender Bradley Bridge said.

Using Brady List information, Bridge has filed motions to dismiss about 6,000 convictions based on officer misconduct, with more than 2,000 convictions thrown out so far.

Bridge acknowledges some of those released might be guilty.

“The problem is, there’s no way to know,” he said. “I have no idea how to evaluate whether they’re guilty or not guilty because the officer’s behavior in the cases is too tainted.”

Bridge has filed more than 500 petitions to reopen convictions tied to a sole officer who admitted falsifying records — Christopher Hulmes of the Philadelphia Police Department’s Narcotics Strike Force, who was charged in 2015 with perjury and tampering with public records. So far, 357 of those convictions have been dismissed, many involving drugs and guns, Bridge said.

Krasner said he feels prosecutors have both a legal and moral obligation to use Brady Lists, but that local police have pushed back.

Last month, he asked for the Philadelphia Police Department to be held in contempt for not cooperating with his request for officer disciplinary material.

Kym Worthy, the prosecutor for Wayne County, Michigan, which includes Detroit, also is disclosing Brady List material to defense attorneys and the public “because in an era of criminal justice reform,” she said, “it just makes sense.”

Worthy has compiled a list of officers who have committed offenses involving theft, dishonesty, fraud, bias or bribery, saying officers who commit these crimes have lost their credibility and won’t be called to testify.

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner also has said she won’t take criminal cases filed by untrustworthy officers and has an “exclusion list” with more than 50 names.

“The union’s predictable over-the-top ‘sky is falling’ reaction to any attempt to distinguish the vast majority of honest and hardworking officers from the few bad actors is one big reason why community relations with the people they serve are so frayed,” Gardner said.

Last year, police misconduct records were at issue in the hotly contested Los Angeles district attorney race between Jackie Lacey and former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, who had been the San Francisco police chief when now Vice-President Kamala Harris was the city’s district attorney and became the DA when she ascended to the state attorney general job.

Gascon had partnered with Harris and the police union to establish a “do not call” list that became the model for the state. After he won the Los Angeles election, he sent letters to local law enforcement agencies seeking the names of officers involved in 11 categories of misconduct, including bribery, theft, evidence tampering, dishonesty, and unreasonable force.

“If the officer’s history is such that we just don’t believe the officer, period, we will not use him,” Gascon said.

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In this March 14, 2017, file photo, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg speaks at a news conference in Seattle. Auburn police Officer Jeffrey Nelson has been charged in the 2019 shooting of Jesse Sarey, and has been investigated in more than 60 use-of-force cases since 2012, but he wasn’t on the prosecutor’s “potential impeachment disclosure” list, or Brady List, which flags officers whose credibility is in question due to misconduct, until after being charge in Sarey’s death. An Associated Press investigation based on hundreds of documents and interviews with prosecutors, defense attorneys and experts on police reform found that prosecutors do not always used the lists to ensure accountability. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

Settlement agreements — and many police union contracts — often prohibit the release of the names of officers named in disciplinary records, but Brady Lists can blow open those closed doors.

The contract between Seattle and its police department, for instance, prohibits releasing disciplined officers’ names. But the Brady Lists sent to the AP by the King County prosecuting attorney included 51 Seattle officers.

Seventeen of those officers had criminal charges filed against them, 26 had sustained findings of dishonesty, six had shown racial bias and one violated the department’s ethics policy.

An investigation by the Office of Police Accountability found that a Seattle officer violated policies against biased policing by posting offensive comments on social media in 2019. The office was prohibited from naming the officer and so referred to him in its report as Named Employee #1, but the Brady List identified him as Ron Smith.

One of Smith’s social media comments “stated that the Islamic religion was not one of peace, suggesting that the Islamic religion and all of its approximately 1.57 billion adherents were supportive of violence,” the OPA report said.

Another post targeted Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, saying: “you weak wristed lefties don’t want border security … you want votes to keep your anti-American party in power,” the report said.

Smith resigned, but the OPA investigation did find that he engaged in “bias-based policing.”

Another Seattle officer on the Brady List was Salvatore Ditusa, who was working a side job flagging traffic when he approached three workers and “engaged in a diatribe that included multiple racial slurs towards African Americans,” the OPA said. Ditusa also resigned. The OPA found that he had also engaged in biased policing.

In Los Angeles, the battle over disclosing officer misconduct information traveled all the way to the state’s highest court.

When Jim McDonnell took over the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, he wanted to share the list of officers accused of misconduct with the prosecutor’s office, but both sides were concerned that a state law — the peace officer’s bill of rights — would prohibit the move.

After the police union filed an injunction to block any sharing, the case went to the state Supreme Court, which ruled in 2019 that prosecutors could be given the list.

One of the people named was homicide detective Daniel Morris.

In 2003, a car theft suspect had said Morris and other officers kicked, punched, and stomped on him – an accusation Morris denied to three different supervisors. But he eventually admitted to the beating, receiving a 30-day suspension.

That information was not shared with the district attorney’s office until 2019.

Ten years before that, Morris had investigated the murder of a gang member in Paramount, California, obtaining a search warrant for the home of Filipe Angel Acosta.

Morris testified that Acosta, who had no criminal history, was associated with a gang and he was charged with drug possession, with a gang enhancement.

Acosta refused a deal that would have involved admitting to gang involvement, but changed his mind and entered a plea of no contest after getting sick in jail and being hospitalized.

At no point did the district attorney reveal that Morris had been disciplined for dishonesty.

When Morris’ misconduct finally was disclosed, Acosta filed a motion to overturn his conviction because of the prosecutor’s Brady violation. The charges were dismissed.

As a 2013 report on the sheriff’s department by a civilian oversight group called the Office of Independent Review put it: “Instances of deputies lying in reports or during investigations do not simply affect the immediate case at hand. Instead, they may influence the outcome of every other case in which the deputy’s testimony is considered.”

When the Abuse Isn’t So Clear

When the Abuse Isn’t So Clear

What if it wasn’t rape?

FALLEN LEGEND: Former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was fired after failing to take more decisive action away from the field.

Amidst all the horrific stories in the grand jury report about retired Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky’s alleged sexual assaults on boys he met through his Second Mile charity is the somewhat less sensational story of “Victim 6.”

This boy was 11 years old in 1998 when Sandusky picked him up at his home, rubbed his thigh en route to Penn State, briefly worked out with him (but not hard enough for the boy to break a sweat), and then insisted they shower together.

“While in the shower, Sandusky approached the boy, grabbed him around the waist and said, ‘I’m going to squeeze your guts out.’ Sandusky lathered up the boy, soaping his back because, he said, the boy would not be able to reach it. Sandusky bear-hugged the boy from behind, holding the boy’s back against his chest. Then he picked him up and put him under the showerhead to rinse soap out of his hair,” the report says.

What if it was your child?

The boy testified that the incident felt “very awkward.” When he went home with wet hair, his mother questioned him about it, reported what happened to Penn State police, and later confronted Sandusky with a university police officer listening in the next room. Sandusky confessed to the disturbing and suspicious behavior, but there was no arrest.

I pull this story out from the more vile ones in the report because it illustrates what kind of behavior and outcomes most mandatory reporters face, and because it’s important to highlight the fact that it mattered a whole lot that one mother stood up to Sandusky and Penn State, thereby establishing an initial record of an alleged sexual predator’s deviant behavior.

What if it was your best friend?

At The Washington Post, columnist Sally Jenkins provocatively asks readers to forgive Sandusky’s boss, coaching legend Joe Paterno, for not reporting his assistant to police, because, she reasons, Paterno’s friendship with Sandusky blinded him. A friendship that close probably would have blinded you too, she implies.

As former FBI agent and pedophile profiler Ken Lanning tells her: “A hallmark of ‘acquaintance molesters’ is that they tend to be deeply trusted and even beloved. They are not strangers, but ‘one of us.’ They are expert at seducing children and are almost as expert at seducing adults, including parents, into believing in them.”

I’ve seen this happen. That it does isn’t an excuse for Paterno or anyone else who fails to act; it may just explain their initial self-deception. (Men’s Health editor Bill Philips suggests some other possible explanations here.)

What if it was your institution?

Amidst a bevy of posts on this story, American Conservative blogger Rod Dreher said the situation “causes us to reflect on the meaning of loyalty, and the meaning of courage.”

“Loyalty is only a virtue depending on the object of one’s loyalty. A mafioso is loyal, but his is a criminal loyalty,” he says. “The difficulty comes when one is asked to be loyal to a worthy cause or institution that is perpetuating or harboring evil.”

What if it was your culture?

Then Dreher turns the inquisitor’s lamp on himself and compares the Penn State situation to 1950s Jim Crow racism in the Deep South, where he grew up.

“I am seeing every day black people discriminated against, by law. Do I stand up against it? I am sorry to say that I am virtually certain that I would not. To have done so would have required going against … well, everybody in my own community.” But then Dreher imagines how he might’ve reacted had he witnessed a white man raping a black boy. “I think it almost certain that … I would have intervened, even violently,” he says, before confessing candidly: “But unless I was confronted directly with something that heinous, I probably would have euphemized and abstracted the evil away, because I couldn’t have faced my own moral responsibility.”

What if it wasn’t so blatant?

It’s easy to condemn a large, muscular man who doesn’t rip a rapist off a child, and other self-serving bystanders who fail to act. It’s much less clear what to do when the man’s behavior, like Sandusky’s thwarted attempt at “grooming” Victim 6, is wrapped in a fuzzy blanket of ambiguity, friendship, and good deeds.

What would you do?

Ask yourself: Would I have reported that?

Redeeming a ‘Teachable Moment’

A professor, a policeman, and the President offered all of us an opportunity to reconsider issues of race, class, and justice in America. But are we able to grasp the deeper lessons? Seven leaders reflect on the real message of the Henry Louis Gates controversy.

Redeeming a 'Teachable Moment' for urban faithA special forum featuring William Pannell, Cheryl Sanders, Glenn Loury, Curtiss DeYoung, Art Lucero, Vashti Murphy McKenzie, and Tali Hairston.

People wanted to make the Henry Louis Gates Jr. arrest and subsequent brouhaha a parable about a lot of things — the prevalence of racial profiling, Ivy League elitism, disrespect for law enforcement, racism, classism, black rage, white privilege. The episode may have had shades of all those things. But the truth is always more complicated and multilayered than the pre-wrapped boxes in which we’re inclined to deposit racial events. And in the end, nobody’s mind really seemed to change about any of the issues at stake. Even Gates and Sergeant Crowley, the arresting officer, said they would simply “agree to disagree” after their much-heralded reunion at President Obama’s so-called “Beer Summit.”

Now, a few weeks removed from the drama of the moment, and with the advantage of hindsight and cooler emotions, perhaps there’s a better chance of drawing some meaningful lessons from what has been glibly labeled by the media as “Gates-gate.” We asked seven Christian scholars, pastors, and urban leaders to give us their perspectives on the real message of the Gates-Crowley-Obama “teachable moment.”

WILLIAM PANNELL: I was listening to President Obama’s press conference, and when I heard the answer he gave about Gates and the cop, I knew he had made a serious mistake. I said out loud, “Oh, no. Don’t do that.” He was out of line not knowing all the facts, and he responded out of his experience of being black in a nation run by white cops. His answer was understandable, given this history. And this history is still very much alive all across this nation. But he is the President of this country; of all people in this country, including those who have never been in the back of a bus. No president should rush to judgment and speak off the cuff as he did. I don’t know what he said to Crowley during their meeting in Washington, but I think he owes him an apology.

The other mistake he made was to be much too laudatory of Professor Gates. Gates is a hot-dog professor at Harvard who loves the spotlight and enjoys a reputation of being superior in human relations. At Harvard he is virtually untouchable, in part because he is black. He is a fine scholar of course, but this isn’t about scholarship. Further complicating this event is the fact that Mr. Obama is an honored graduate of Harvard. Too much baggage for a president to carry on this one.

What have we learned? Not much, probably, for those whose experience on either side of this issue precludes the possibility of seeing both sides of this event. Black people are still being mistreated by white cops — black ones, too, for that matter. A cop is a cop; they represent the army of occupation in all our cities. Civilians beware!

On the other hand, policing is much more complicated an enterprise today than in the more recent past. And most departments have made strong efforts at preparing their officers to respect civilians of all colors in the line of their duties. But it is still true that racism is alive and well in this country. If I were I still a father of teenage boys, I would warn them about any encounter with police. I did this when my boys were in their teens, and I’d still do it today.

The way forward in this arena of mistrust requires that we open discussions between “civilians” and the “army.” When such conversations do occur, they are most often heated because they have been triggered by some encounter between the police and a civilian. Riots have been set off this way. Ask Rodney King.

What we need is a series of regular backyard conversations between police and neighborhoods in an attempt to develop “communities of discourse,” climates where trust can be developed. The most promising centers for such discourse could be local congregations, but better in someone’s backyard. The barbecue tastes better there.

Then this: One of these days the executives of major news outlets need to get converted from their corporate greed and realize that free speech is really not free. It carries with it serious responsibilities for the general welfare of a people. Spreading hate on CNN, Fox, or any other outlet ill serves the nation. We are very badly divided in this country. Under intense pressures owing to the economic crisis, nerves become frayed and the natives get restless. If we cannot talk about our differences, we are in serious trouble. And our differences are anchored in fear. So let’s talk about what makes us afraid.

Dr. William E. Pannell is Special Assistant to the President and Senior Professor of Preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary. In the past he has served as a professor of evangelism and as director of the African American Studies Program. A gifted preacher and professor of homiletics, Pannell has nurtured several generations of Fuller students from the classroom to the pulpit. He currently serves on the board of Taylor University in Indiana and is the author of numerous articles and books, including The Coming Race Wars? A Cry for Reconciliation (1993), Evangelism from the Bottom Up (1992), and My Friend, the Enemy (1968).

CHERYL SANDERS: I think the real message of the Gates affair is that white privilege does not readily convey to affluent and influential people of color. As a next step, beyond meeting over beers, perhaps President Obama should consider convening town meetings around the nation to discuss these issues, if he can garner the political courage and moral authority to do so.

At Third Street Church of God, we have incorporated the ministry of reconciliation into our mission statement and ministry priorities. One reason why race relations remains problematic in the United States is the failure of Christians to acknowledge that all persons are made in the image of God and that God is no respecter of persons. Therefore we have deluded ourselves into thinking that the racism, sexism, and elitism practiced in many of our churches reflect the will and Word of God.

The special role churches could play to bring healing to our racial rifts would require recollection, repentance, restitution, and reconciliation, in that order. Reconciliation requires more than beer-bottle diplomacy — there must be transparency and truth-telling with the intention of actually changing the way we relate to each other.

Dr. Cheryl J. Sanders has been senior pastor of the Third Street Church of God in Washington, D.C., since 1997, and is Professor of Christian Ethics at the Howard University School of Divinity where she has taught since 1984. She has authored several books, including Ministry at the Margins: The Prophetic Mission of Women, Youth & the Poor (1997) and Saints in Exile: The Holiness-Pentecostal Experience in African American Religion and Culture (1996).

GLENN LOURY: The real message? I think it’s that the president must do a better job managing the “race” issue. I recognize that this issue is pretty far down the list of things he has to worry about, and rightly so. But, as the principal public official now in the position of framing the national discourse on race-related matters, he has an awesome responsibility to get it right. And, he’s been revealed by his handling of this incident to be not nearly as sure-footed as conventional wisdom would have it. This is likely to cost him politically over the long run, which cannot be good for African Americans or progressives in this country.

We have to find a way to talk honestly about our problems, which lie at the intersection of race and class. It’s not blackness in general, or in the abstract, that is the issue. The racial profiling of successful black Americans is not the deep problem here. (I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, or that it’s not a problem. I’m saying if that were all that was going on, it wouldn’t be a fundamental blemish on our democracy. What is a fundamental stain on our democracy, and what gives rise to a great hypocrisy in the way our country presents itself to the rest of the world, is the virtual police state that is being run in our midst, with its great weight falling on the backs of the black and brown, urban, low-income, poorly educated, socially marginal populations who have fallen between the cracks. This incident, and the way in which it has been handled, including by the President of the United States, reveals just how far we are from being able to confront our true racial demons.

What role should the church play? No more or less than in any other central area of American life (the environment; economic justice; war and peace, etc.). I don’t believe that this is a “why can’t we all get along?” kind of spiritual battle. It is a political and economic battle, which of course has a spiritual and moral dimension. But, it is not a question of personal morality (how should black and white individuals deal with encounters like the one in Cambridge last month?). Rather, it is a question of public morality — that is, how should we as a nation deal with those who are being left behind?

Glenn C. Loury is the Merton P. Stoltz Professor of the Social Sciences and Professor of Economics at Brown University. He taught previously at Boston University, Harvard, and Northwestern. In addition to his scholarly work, Loury is a prominent social critic and public intellectual, a frequent commentator on national radio and television, and an advisor on social issues to business and political leaders throughout the country. His books include One by One, From the Inside Out: Essays and Reviews on Race and Responsibility in America (winner of the American Book Award and the Christianity Today Book Award) and The Anatomy of Racial Equality.

CURTISS PAUL DEYOUNG: The confusing details surrounding the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. by the Cambridge, Massachusetts, police department demonstrate once again the challenge of healing the open wound of racism in the United States. The incident reveals the often unseen depth of generational scars and raw fears experienced by persons of color, even those who sit in elite positions in the country. It also shows how those serving within institutions in our country fail, despite their best efforts, to recognize these effects and order their behaviors accordingly.

Until our best minds and most committed healers focus on the deeper levels of bigotry and systemic injustice, and implement a process for transformation, we will continue to experience the symptoms of this entrenched reality.

Curtiss Paul DeYoung is Professor of Reconciliation Studies at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He has experience in urban multicultural ministry in the United States and South Africa, and his research interests include multicultural interpretations of the Bible and interfaith dialogue. DeYoung is the author of several books, including Living Faith: How Faith Inspires Social Justice.

ARTURO LUCERO: I think one of the main lessons from the Gates incident is that frustrating circumstances can be a seedbed for misunderstandings and unfortunate consequences. Proverbs says, “He that is slow to wrath is of great understanding: but he that is hasty of spirit exalteth folly.” And it later says, “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.”

The Civil Rights Act protects all Americans from discrimination. But it does not change the heart of man. The only real answer to matters of race and class is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Government legislation may impact our actions, but the Word of God transforms our lives. It teaches us to love one another as Christ loved us (John 13:34-35), to put the interests of others above our own (Phil. 2:3-4), and to forgive (Eph. 4:32b). Although the Word of God is clear in its teachings on this matter, some preachers of the Word are not.

The role of the church is to bring people to maturity in Christ (Eph. 4:12-13). Paul goes on to describe how we are to reflect that maturity, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

As long as people of all ethnicities perpetuate the injustices of the past and their grievances toward other ethnicities, the wound will never heal. The only biblical solution is for pastors to teach their flocks to forgive those who hurt us (Eph. 4:32b), love our enemies, and to pray and do good to those who hate us (Matt. 5:44; Luke 6:27).

Arturo Lucero is the president and founder of Multi Cultural Ministry and also serves as an adult ministry pastor at Sunrise Church in Rialto, California, a multiethnic congregation of 4,000. As the former director of Bible Church Mission, a church planting agency, he developed a strategy for ministering to the growing Hispanic community through an established non-Hispanic church. As a conference speaker and consultant to churches, his focus is on equipping churches for reaching the immigrant community. He has contributed chapters to the books Reuniting the Family of God, edited by A. Charles Ware and Eugene Seals, and Just Don’t Marry One: Interracial Dating, Marriage, and Parenting, edited by George and Sherelyn Yancey.

VASHTI MURPHY MCKENZIE: I think a big lesson from the Gates incident is that stereotypes persist in our world. Stereoptypical attitudes will meet you in the boardroom, classroom, locker room, on the street, or even at your front door.

Stereotypical attitudes, unfortunately, are a part of our everyday lives. We’d like to think they’re dead and gone, but often they just depart for a season. We stereotype each other all the time. Just when you think it’s safe, it will happen to you or to someone you know. And whenever it happens, it hurts.

When I read the news account that Professor Gates was arrested in his own home, it suddenly didn’t seem like 2009. Instead, it felt more like 1959. Racial profiling was alleged, but law enforcement officials also felt unfairly judged for trying to carry out their jobs. Stereotypes can affect all sides of a conflict.

A stereotype paints men and women a color that they have not earned and do not deserve. There are stereotypes in every person’s closet, and they come out at the most inconvenient times. Stereotypes are a group fixed notions about a person or group of persons or the conceptioins that surround a position or occupation. There are stereotypes about certain ethnic, cultural, or religious groups. There are stereotypes surrounding Christians and Jews, Muslims and Buddhists. There are stereotypes surrounding men and women. There are stereotypes surrounding people of African, Irish, Polish, or Hispanic descent. One person may be viewed as confident, while another doing the same thing is considered arrogant. One person’s action is called “survival,” while another doing the same thing is “looting.” One person running down the street may be considered jogging, but another person doing the same thing must be running away from something because they must have done something.

Even Jesus experienced stereotyping. In the Gospel of John, chapter one, Philip found Nathanael and told him that they’d found the One that Moses had written about in the Law and about whom the prophets also wrote — “Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” What was Nathaniel’s response? “Nazareth? Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael hadn’t even met Jesus, hadn’t shaken his hand, didn’t Googled him, hadn’t read his résumé. He just figured that he wasn’t any good because he came from Nazareth. We all dream of a better world where character is elevated over color and class. But if you want a better world, you have to work for it. It won’t come by wishing.

John wrote about a beloved community; Martin Luther King Jr. preached about it; Donny Hathaway sang about it, “Someday we’ll all be free.” But it won’t come by wishing; it will only come by seeking God and working for a change. We need to work on getting rid of these stereotypes today.

Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie is a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church — the first female bishop in its history — and serves in the 13th Episcopal District, which includes Tennessee and Kentucky. She is a member of the President’s Advisory Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Her latest book is Swapping Housewives: Rachel & Jacob & Leah. Her teaching, inspirational meditations, and commentaries are available as a podcast at ThisIsYourWakeupCallOnline.com.

TALI HAIRSTON: The conclusions drawn from racial incidence in America come quickly and often with undeniable passion. The rarer moments within racial matters is when someone creates a moment of pause that alters the mental landscape of how many imagined or consider race.

President Obama recently created such a pause when he sought to reframe the Dr. Gates and Officer Crowley situation as a “teachable moment.” This triggered a litany of reflections on one of America’s oldest closet skeletons. What is inferred by the President is that his election did not signal an end to all things racial. Rather, America is at best more racially conscious and less resistant to new paradigms related to race.

What we clearly lack is strategic engagement and the intentional effort needed to truly address race in America. This leaves us with two basic options which were regularly demonstrated in this situation. We either choose to ignore the issue of race, believing that if we do so racism will fix itself. Or, we wait until the next race-based conflict and react vociferously with insight and passion, hoping to change someone’s mind or at best give them a piece of ours.

For the Christian community, I argue both these reactions are not in line with Christian mission and witness. From the perspective of an African American male with an Irish family name; living in an Asian community; working alongside Protestant, Catholic, Jew, and Gentile for reconciliation and community development; the issue of race has grown more complex by our lack of missional intentionality. We engage race like a couple in a struggling marriage. Problems are only addressed while emotions and sensitivities are running high. But when the current issue de-escalates, we go back to our churches, neighborhoods, TV shows, and hobbies. This assures we will not be equipped as a nation or as Christians to properly engage “the other” when it most matters.

How much money has been invested in turning the racial tide? What institutions produce marketplace materials that counteract the million-dollar radio and TV personalities that so easily fan the flames of racial ignorance? Christian mission and witness has always demanded intentionality, resources, planning, time, leadership, collaboration, prayer, and hope. If the church could be a witness at this level, maybe change wouldn’t feel so much like a pipe dream.

Tali Hairston is Special Assistant to the President at Seattle Pacific University and director of the John Perkins Center for Reconciliation, Leadership Training, and Community Development. At the helm of the Perkins Center, he is leading Seattle Pacific in a comprehensive initiative born out of a dream and a partnership between SPU President Philip Eaton and the legendary reconciliation advocate Dr. John Perkins. Hairston is passionate about seeing SPU contribute to the reconciliation movement in Seattle and the nation.