Professor Sherrilyn Ifill’s first encounter with the police happened when she was 10 years old. Clifford Glover, a boy her age, was shot by officers on the street where she lived in Jamaica, Queens, after he and his step-father were mistaken for suspects in a robbery.
“From a very early age, I was taught to have a healthy respect for law enforcement,” she said in a presentation on February 9th at Maryland Carey Law. The event was the third in a series of conversations sponsored by the Schools of Law and Social Work to consider the legal, policy and social issues raised by the killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo. and New York City in 2014.
When Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, MO, Professor Ifill followed the responses to it on Twitter and other social media. And she couldn’t help thinking, “What do we do with this moment we’re in?”
“These killings are not a new phenomenon,” she told the audience of law and social work students. “What is new is the video evidence; the use of social media,” to document the events and inform the larger public about them.
Maryland Carey Professor Ifill, who is on leave to serve as President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., summarized her work in response to the killings, noting that she had sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder urging him to intervene.
“The fact that no one has suffered any consequences…what does this say about our democracy?” she asked the students. She also provided a brief analysis of the long-term and complex public policy and social issues which, in her view, had set the stage for the killings.
“Cultural policing is difficult to change over time because it’s usually a family profession,” Professor Ifill said. “Sons and daughters join the police force because their father, grandfather, or uncle was an officer. And those preconceived notions of what a law enforcement officer should be, become ingrained in the thinking.”
“Police officers are agents of the state whom we have entrusted to take life” she noted. “By not providing them with additional training to deal with issues, such as the ability to deescalate or deal appropriately with the mentally ill, we are doing them an incredible disservice.”
Professor Ifill also disputed the views of elected officials who believe that problems of race and inequality can be solved by money and resources alone.
“You can’t have decades of policies and investment to create a segregated society and then just expect it to go away.”
Professor Ifill finished her presentation by commending the Schools of Law and Social Work for their willingness to have a frank and open discussion about the issues. She cited examples from the civil rights movement, and noted that while we may not see change in our lifetime, our children and grandchildren will benefit from the work that has been done.
“No narrative lasts forever,” she concluded. “We do have the power to change it.”