We Need More Than Equality

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Category: Civil Rights, Human Rights, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public, Race & Law, Uncategorized
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girl_blowing_soap_bubblesOver the past few months, I’ve tried to wrap my brain around the multitude of complex issues that have occurred between police officers and people of color within the United States. From my recollection, it seemed like every other day there was a new incident involving an unarmed black man being gunned down by individuals who are sworn to protect the public: the police. Whenever the news of these incidents were revealed to the public, I noticed friends, family, and strangers all begin to take sides as to who they believed was either right or wrong in this situation (involving the police and the individual who was shot). Through social media and conversations with peers, I’ve observed people pick “sides,” such as, “Blue Lives Matter,” “Black Lives Matter,” or “All Lives Matter.” When I observed people use these phrases to justify their stance on life (and which lives matter), I began to establish my own thoughts about how we as a society ought to view life from a metaphysical standpoint. Within this essay, I will first illustrate the significance of the fact that humans are social beings. Second, I will illustrate the importance of sympathy and empathy for social beings like humans. Third, I will argue that human life is precious and that it ought to be appreciated and celebrated uniformly with all human life.

Humans are social beings. We are dependent upon our experiences within the world and with other human beings. Our experiences are important because they help shape our ideas and beliefs; they also allow for us to understand our surroundings as well as other people. For instance, you could not place a new born baby in a room by itself for its entire life and expect it to develop into a human being who can properly rationalize and truly understand what is going on around it. We need other human beings in order to thrive and live. As social beings who learn from experience, hopefully in some capacity during our lifetime, we learn to develop sympathy and empathy. The hope is that we are given the opportunity to have enough experiences in order to indirectly or directly relate to another human being. I’m sure you’ve heard the old phrase: “We fear what we do not know.” A majority of the time, that statement is true because we often don’t fear the things we thoroughly understand (with some exceptions of course). When we fail to sympathize or empathize with another individual who has/had different experiences than us, we occasionally resort to stereotypes and make assumptions. We can learn so much from other people when we listen, rather than immediately resorting to various preconceived notions. Sympathy and empathy wouldn’t be important if we were not the social beings that we are. We rely on others to live and, arguably, could not survive without other human beings. Read more »

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Calling 911 in the Wake of Police Violence

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Category: Civil Rights, Criminal Law & Process, Human Rights, Media & Journalism, Milwaukee, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Poverty & Law, Public, Race & Law
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black_lives_matter_sign_-_minneapolis_protest_22632545857Amanda Seligman is a Visiting Fellow in Law and Public Policy at Marquette University Law School.

How does racially-tinged police violence toward civilians affect city residents’ willingness to summon aid in an emergency? A study in the October 2016 American Sociological Review asks what happened to the number of 911 calls after the public revelation that off-duty white Milwaukee police officers beat Frank Jude in 2004. In “Police Violence and Citizen Crime Reporting in the Black Community,” Matthew Desmond, Andrew V. Papachristos, and David S. Kirk find that in the year after the initial publicity around the beating, Milwaukee residents placed 22,000 fewer 911 calls than might have been expected, resulting in a total of 110,000 calls. Although white neighborhoods saw a spike in 911 calls and then a long but shallow dip, the loss of calls was especially pronounced in black neighborhoods. The authors found no such loss of calls reporting traffic accidents.

Desmond et al.’s 911 study received extensive mass media coverage. Juleyka Lantigua-Williams wrote about the study in The Atlantic, and the New York Times’sThe Upshot” column reported the findings. The study was the subject of two articles in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, one reporting on the findings and one offering responses from District Attorney John Chisholm and Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn. Two of the authors, Desmond and Papachristos, also published an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times commenting on the significance of their research. A small host of other reports suggest broad interest in the study’s implications in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement and widespread coverage of police shootings of African American civilians.

Sociologist Desmond is one of our most thoughtful observers of the cultural significance of the 911 emergency call system. In Evicted, his 2015 ethnographic study of housing and poverty in Milwaukee, Desmond observed how victims of domestic violence put themselves at risk for losing their homes if they call the police too often. Read more »

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Obama Clemency Grants Pick Up Steam

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Federal Criminal Law & Process, Federal Sentencing, Marquette Law School, President & Executive Branch, Prisoner Rights, Public, Race & Law
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Somewhat lost amidst the wall-to-wall media coverage of the Clinton and Trump campaigns, President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 111 federal prisoners on August 30. This builds on what has quietly become one of Obama’s most significant end-of-term domestic policy initiatives. He has now commuted 673 sentences, more than the previous ten presidents combined. The August 30 grants, however, had special significance for me and a small group of recent Marquette Law School graduates.

Commutation (that is, a reduction in the severity of a criminal sentence) is a form of executive clemency. The Constitution expressly grants clemency powers, and presidents since George Washington have used these powers in a variety of different ways. In recent decades, though, there has been a certain whiff of disrepute surrounding clemency. Reinforcing the negative perceptions, President Bill Clinton’s pardon of financier Marc Rich and President George W. Bush’s commutation of the sentence of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby seemed to confirm that clemency was mostly used to benefit wealthy, powerful defendants.

The Obama Administration, however, envisioned a very different way to use clemency.   Read more »

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Confronting Racism

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Category: Civil Rights, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public, Race & Law
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Plessy_markerIn Plessy v. Ferguson, Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote “[o]ur constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.” [1] Today, most people might say they too are color-blind. However, race relations have been prevalent in the news as of late because the state of racism in America has mutated. Racism is rarely as bold as the cross burnings of yore, but no less insidious. [2]

Because racism is different, our understanding of our inherent biases must also become different. I believe the modern definition of racism has shifted. I define racism as taking a negative action towards someone, whether explicitly or implicitly, on account of their race. This means that people can take racist actions without being aware that they are doing so.[3] We can no longer oversimplify racism, and instead need to confront it within ourselves and as a community.

As a country, we need to do a better job confronting racism. A plethora of high profile incidents, involving police brutality and campus outrage, have given us another opportunity to confront our inherent biases. Unfortunately, too many “color-blind” people have not heeded the second part of Justice Harlan’s dissent and have instead tolerated or even justified the systemic mistreatment of classes of citizens. [4] Read more »

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Bucks President Offers Big Visions of Success On and Off the Court

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Category: Milwaukee, Race & Law, Speakers at Marquette, Sports & Law
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With new design plans for the Milwaukee Bucks arena to be unveiled in the next several days, Peter Feigin, president of the professional basketball franchise, exuded nothing but enthusiasm during an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program Wednesday about the future of the team and what its impact will be not only in Milwaukee and statewide but across the globe.

“Awesome,” he said. “This is going to be miraculous.” But that will come to pass only with hard work, not only on the basketball court but throughout every aspect of what the does, Feigin told a large audience in the Appellate Courtroom of Eckstein Hall.

Milwaukee? Feigin said the team wants to do all it can to connect with the city, including connecting its players with the youth of the city and increasing its philanthropic work focused on youth, wellness, and education. And the new arena and the team’s operations as a whole will mean several thousand full-time jobs in the city.

Wisconsin? The Bucks want to be “Wisconsin’s team” in the way the Green Bay Packers and Milwaukee Brewers have become Wisconsin’s teams in their sports. Read more »

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Narrative and Social Control

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Category: Civil Rights, Criminal Law & Process, Media & Journalism, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public, Race & Law
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copslogoIn recent decades, awareness of narrative and of stories in general has increased in many fields and academic disciplines, law included.  However, it is nevertheless surprising to see that even law enforcement specialists in the Justice Department have developed an appreciation of the workings and importance of narrative.

This heightened sensitivity surfaced in the recent Justice Department report on police conduct in Ferguson, Missouri following the shooting of Michael Brown.  Issued by the Department’s “Community Oriented Policing Services” office, the report outlines no fewer than 113 lessons that police in Missouri and elsewhere might learn from developments during the seventeen days following Brown’s death and funeral.

Much of the report is predictable.  It criticizes such police tactics as the use of dogs, tear gas, and so-called “overwatching.”  With the latter, police use rifle sights to survey a crowd from positions on top of police vehicles.  Overall, the report warns that “militarization” of a volatile situation will probably make things worse.

Toward the end of the report, its authors turn to what they label “lost narrative.”  In their opinion, Missouri law enforcement was too slow to provide information about the shooting of Brown and thereby created an opening for alternative representations of the incident.  Supporters of Brown and his family seized the opportunity and offered an alternative narrative, one conveyed largely but not completely through the social media and one stressing that “Black Lives Matter.” Read more »

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Israel Reflections 2015 — Putting the Lessons into Action

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Category: Public, Race & Law
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Before posting our last (and fabulous) blog post from the trip, I just want to say that it has been a real delight to share all of these reflections from my terrific students with our blogging community.  Looking forward already to the next trip in 2017!

Student James Bowers does a beautiful job here outlining how learning about international conflict may inspire us to deal with our own conflict in the U.S. Read more »

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Mercenary Justice?

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Milwaukee, Poverty & Law, Public, Race & Law
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Earlier this week, the United States Department of Justice released a scathing report on police and court practices in Ferguson, Missouri. Figuring prominently in the DOJ’s criticisms, Ferguson criminal-justice officials were said to be overly concerned with extracting money from defendants. For instance, the DOJ charges:

Ferguson has allowed its focus on revenue generation to fundamentally compromise the role of Ferguson’s municipal court. The municipal court does not act as a neutral arbiter of the law or a check on unlawful police conduct. Instead, the court primarily uses its judicial authority as the means to compel the payment of fines and fees that advance the City’s financial interests. This has led to court practices that violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process and equal protection requirements. The court’s practices also impose unnecessary harm, overwhelmingly on African-American individuals, and run counter to public safety. (3)

I don’t know how fair these particular criticisms are, but they echo numerous other criticisms made in recent years about the increasing tendency of the American criminal-justice system to rely financially on a burgeoning array of surcharges, fees, forfeitures, and the like.

Professors Wayne Logan and Ron Wright have a fine recent article on this subject, appropriately entitled “Mercenary Criminal Justice” (2014 Ill. L. Rev. 1175).   Read more »

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Milwaukee Arrests Rarely Involve Force, But Numbers Vary by District

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Milwaukee, Public, Race & Law
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Last week, the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission released its annual report on police uses of force for 2013. The report counts 895 incidents in 2013, employing a very broad definition of “use of force” that does not require either an injury or the use of a weapon. To put that number into perspective, the Milwaukee Police Department made more than 30,000 arrests in 2013. For each arrest in which force was used, there were about thirty-six arrests in which force was not used.

In nearly three-quarters of the use-of-force-incidents, no weapon was used by the police officer. In the remaining incidents, the most commonly used weapons were Tasers and pepper spray. Firearms were used on forty occasions, most commonly on dogs. Firearms were used against human subjects in fourteen incidents; eleven of the subjects were hit.   Read more »

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Milwaukee Residents Give Solid Marks to Police

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Milwaukee, Public, Race & Law
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Last week, the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission (of which I am a member) released the results of its first-ever survey of citizen attitudes toward the police.  Although the survey identified a few areas of concern, the overall tenor of citizen attitudes seems positive.

Conducted for the FPC by UWM’s Center for Urban Initiatives & Research last summer, the survey involved telephone interviews of 1,452 Milwaukee residents.  As detailed in the CUIR’s report, the survey respondents were reflective of the city’s diversity in racial composition and in other respects.

The report’s lead finding is that about three-quarters of Milwaukee residents report that they are at least somewhat satisfied with the Milwaukee Police Department, while only about nine percent said they were “not at all satisfied.”  These findings are notable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that fully one-quarter of the respondents reported being stopped by the police in the past year.  One might suppose that this group would be predisposed to negative evaluations of the police.  However, the vast majority (71%) of those stopped felt that they were treated fairly.  The MPD has significantly increased its number of stops in recent years, but it does not appear that involuntary contact with the police normally leads to hard feelings by the person stopped.

Given recent racial tensions in Milwaukee and nationally regarding policing practices, it is especially important to note the racial patterns in survey responses.   Read more »

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Independence of Voters Yields Surprises in Law School Poll Results

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Category: Marquette Law School Poll, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Race & Law
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It probably shouldn’t be such a surprise that independent votes would show their independence. But the Marquette Law School Poll results released Wednesday in an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” session at Eckstein Hall clearly caught people in the room, as well as far beyond the room, by surprise. Independent voters were largely the reason why.

Two weeks ago, the poll put Republican Gov. Scott Walker ahead of Democratic challenger Mary Burke by five percentage points among likely voters. This time, the two were in such a dead heat among likely voters that the exact same number of poll respondents picked Walker and Burke (380 each). That made for a 47%-47% tie, with the scattered responses making up the remainder.

What changed? Among voters who labeled themselves independents, Walker led in the prior Marquette Law School Poll, conducted late September, by 53% to 40%. But in the new poll, conducted from Oct. 9 through 12, Burke was favored by 45% of independents and Walker by 44%. Professor Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll, considered that a significant shift and an indication that there were still voters out there who are persuadable by either candidate – potentially enough to decide the election. Read more »

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Wisconsinites Give Criminal-Justice System Low Marks, Especially for Offender Rehabilitation

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Marquette Law School, Public, Race & Law, Wisconsin Criminal Law & Process
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We expect a lot from our criminal-justice system, and we don’t seem very impressed with the results we are getting.  These are two of the notable lessons that emerge from the most recent Marquette Law School Poll of Wisconsin residents, the results of which were released earlier today.

In one part of the survey, respondents were asked to assess the importance of five competing priorities for the criminal-justice system.  As to each of the five, a majority indicated that the priority was either “very important” or “absolutely essential.”  The five priorities were:

  • Making Wisconsin a safer place to live (91.6% said either very important or absolutely essential)
  • Ensuring that people who commit crimes receive the punishment they deserve (88.1%)
  • Keeping crime victims informed about their cases and helping them to understand how the system works (81.0%)
  • Rehabilitating offenders and helping them to become contributing members of society (74.1%)
  • Reducing the amount of money we spend on imprisoning criminals (51.2%)

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