The unjust killings of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement over the past several years have become all too common news. But New York Times bestselling author Marc Lamont Hill and his co-author Todd Brewster masterfully weave together the strands of social justice uprisings, technology, and social media to talk about how the deaths of black people by police led to viral and physical social justice movements that have reshaped our national discourse.
UrbanFaith contributor Maina Mwaura spent a few moments with Marc Lamont Hill to discuss his the new book Seen & Unseen: Technology, Social Media & the Fight For Racial Justice. The full interview is above. More about the book is below.
With his signature “clear and courageous” (Cornel West) voice Marc Lamont Hill and New York Times bestselling author Todd Brewster weave four recent pivotal moments in America’s racial divide into their disturbing historical context—starting with the killing of George Floyd—Seen and Unseen reveals the connections between our current news headlines and social media feeds and the country’s long struggle against racism.
For most of American history, our media has reinforced and promoted racism. But with the immediacy of modern technology—the ubiquity of smartphones, social media, and the internet—that long history is now in flux. From the teenager who caught George Floyd’s killing on camera to the citizens who held prosecutors accountable for properly investigating the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, ordinary people are now able to reveal injustice in a more immediate way. As broad movements to overhaul policing, housing, and schooling gain new vitality, Seen and Unseen demonstrates that change starts with the raw evidence of those recording history on the front lines.
In the vein of The New Jim Crow and Caste, Seen and Unseen incisively explores what connects our moment to the history of race in America but also what makes today different from the civil rights movements of the past and what it will ultimately take to push social justice forward.
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.”
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.
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.”
A network of more than a dozen Christian groups is launching an initiative to address police reform.
The Prayer & Action Justice Initiative — bringing together Black, Hispanic and Asian organizations along with groups focused on prisoners, prayer and public justice — will advocate for greater equality, accountability and transparency in the criminal justice system.
“The church as a whole, especially certain parts of the church, have not been very clear where they stand on racialized violence and on racial justice in general,” said Justin Giboney, president of The AND Campaign, a group focused on applying biblical values to pressing contemporary issues, which is spearheading the formation of the network.
Justin Giboney speaks during a racial justice demonstration in Atlanta. Photo courtesy of the Prayer & Action Justice Initiative
“We don’t want any ambiguity where we stand on justice. And so our thought is that it is time for the church to unite and, through uniting, we’ll have the credibility to lead on the issue of racial justice.”
The coalition, launched Wednesday (Aug. 19), includes the National Association of Evangelicals, National Day of Prayer Task Force, Asian American Christian Collaborative, National Latino Evangelical Coalition, National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, OneRace and the Church of God in Christ, a historically Black Pentecostal denomination.
The coalition also includes Prison Fellowship, a Christian organization founded by the late Chuck Colson, and the Center for Public Justice, a Christian think tank. Both will lead the initiative’s nonpartisan government advocacy work.
In a “Biblical Justice and Race Statement,” the groups said they mourned the loss of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery “and all others who have lost their lives due to racialized violence. The Church must take these injustices personally, and take initiative to expel racial hatred and partiality from our society.”
Citing a dual commitment to the gospel and justice, the statement tied the groups’ efforts to the New Testament Book of James’ proclamation that faith should be accompanied with action.
“Right doctrine without righteous conduct is unfaithfulness,” they said. “Accordingly, to be silent or inactive on racism is immoral.”
The groups’ document calls for “policies designed to level the playing field so that outcomes are driven more by justice than wealth or race.” The policies advocated for in the document include laws for public disclosure of deaths in custody and use-of-force reports, fairer sentences and restorative opportunities for former prisoners to be reintegrated into society.
“We know this country has to do better, especially when it comes to African Americans in our criminal justice system,” said Giboney. “We think we can do that without necessarily a completely adversarial relationship with the police.”
He said there are times when there is unnecessary police contact. The network seeks both national and local consideration of how and whether police should be involved in some kinds of situations that have previously escalated with their presence.
“We know that that’s not an easy job,” Giboney said. “Whereas they do need to be held accountable and do a better job in many instances, they’re a part of our community as well.”
Individual supporters include the Rev. Barbara Williams-Skinner, a leader of African American church coalitions; the Rev. John Jenkins, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Maryland; and Super Bowl champion Benjamin Watson.
Many of the initiative’s members previously worked together on the Churches Helping Churches Challenge, which has raised more than $1 million since April to provide grants to mostly minority and immigrant churches that were in danger of closing during the coronavirus pandemic.