A public defender who works in Richmond says he is hopeful that the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) damning findings against Missouri’s Ferguson Police Department will encourage greater change in the way law enforcement treats local residents.
Matt Cuthbertson, a deputy public defender in Contra Costa County since 2007, said he wasn’t surprised the DOJ’s report found Ferguson police had routinely violated the constitutional rights of black citizens.
Ferguson police “engaged in a broad pattern of racially biased enforcement that permeated the city’s justice system,” the DOJ said, according to this USA Today report.
“It’s emblematic of a national problem,” Cuthbertson said. “We [in Richmond] see these types of statistics. Public defenders aren’t surprised because we see it in police reports every day.”
The public defender acknowledged efforts in recent years by Police Chief Chris Magnus to improve relations between police officers and residents.
Magnus has received national attention for capitalizing on community partnerships to help bring down the city’s crime rate, and for standing alongside protesters during a Richmond demonstration inspired by the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson.
(Editor’s note: the DOJ decided not to charge Wilson, saying the evidence supports his self-defense claim.)
Magnus was also added to the DOJ-formed panel investigating police community relations in Ferguson.
But Cuthbertson, a member of the Bay Area group “Public Defenders for Social Change,” doesn’t believe Magnus’ teachings have trickled down to all of his cops. From the time a person is stopped to the time he or she is prosecuted, there are about 50 different decision points that could be infected by bias, Cuthbertson said.
The bias can be seen, Cuthbertson said, in the disproportionate number of local black and brown suspects being pulled over for minor vehicle code violations such as failing to signal 100 feet before a turn or riding a bicycle without a light.
If local law enforcement takes the needed steps to ensure equal treatment of all citizens, the “Us vs. Them” mentality that has been permeating West County communities could begin to evaporate, Cuthbertson said.
“If application of the law was consistent across all groups, there might be a better relationship between the community and police that would ultimately help police develop information for their investigations,” he said.
Cuthbertson said he’s heard witnesses to crimes say they refused to talk to police because they felt disrespected by law enforcement.
“That’s personally the experiences I’ve had in my cases; a witness would say, ‘Why would I tell [police]? They were yelling at me to get into my house,'” he said.