Deputy Public Defender Kevin Mitchell

I Can’t Breathe: A Black Public Defender’s View

As a Deputy Public Defender in San Francisco who happens to be black, I have an intimate understanding of the “us versus them” mentality between police and young black people who are often subject to unjustified traffic stops, detentions, pat searches and arrests.

I have filed, investigated and argued hundreds of motions to dismiss based on illegal searches and seizures and unjustified racial profiling. I have seen judges set higher bails for my African-American clients than their non-black counterparts.

My African-American clients often receive higher sentences from judges and more severe plea offers from prosecutors than their white counterparts.

This is standard operating practice, and such instances have been validated by many national studies showing that black people are treated more harshly by police, prosecutors and judges alike.

As a public defender, it is my job to ensure that all people’s constitutional rights are respected and enforced. Many times my arguments about the impact of race on police decision-making are met with blank stares from judges and prosecutors who ignore and refuse to acknowledge that black people are more likely to be the victims of unjustified police actions.

Even when I have presented evidence that officers are untruthful, or caught officers lying in cross-examination, judges will often bend over backward to protect the officer and disbelieve my clients, most of whom are black and brown. Numerous studies have shown that judges and prosecutors are not immune from both conscious and unconscious biases when it comes to how a black defendant is viewed.

As a young black man, I too was the victim of racial profiling.

One day, as I was walking down the sidewalk in broad daylight, an officer driving past slowed down and motioned for me to come to his car window. I gave him a peace sign and continued walking. The officer pulled his squad car onto the sidewalk and drove about half a block on the sidewalk before ordering me to stop to inform him who I was and where I was going.

In another instance, I had the opportunity to read the report that an officer filed against me and I remember wondering how the officer could write fiction as if it was fact. Due to my experiences, along with those of my peers, I decided to become a public defender.

As a public defender, I’ve seen too many officers provide exaggerated and incriminating testimony geared toward assisting the prosecutor to obtain a conviction, as well as officers who feign a loss of memory as to facts that prove innocence. I’ve also encountered officers who have extreme biases that are manifested through their reports and tainted testimony.

The “no indictment” verdicts in the Ferguson, Staten Island and countless other cases are no surprise to me.

It’s no surprise that the grand jury system operates in a way that treats a shooting of a black person differently when the defendant is a white police officer.

When a person of color is viewed as uncooperative or disrespectful, he is treated or, more accurately, mistreated in a manner which accomplishes compliance by force. The police engage in very little discussion or explanation, skipping straight to the dehumanization and embarrassment of ordering you to the ground or to be placed in handcuffs while officers figure out what to do next.

The Fourth Amendment protects us against unreasonable search and seizure. It assures us that the authorities cannot act to deprive us of our God-given freedom, unless they act within reason. Yet and still, police often use painful, debilitating control holds, take downs, tasers and even firearms to achieve their goal of obtaining complete submission, sometimes resulting in death, for the most trivial infractions.

All too often, police cite officer safety as the reason for becoming hands on with a suspect. This excuse is used in each and every instance of police brutality as a justification for unprovoked violence by the police against the people whom they are entrusted with the responsibility to protect and serve.

Public defenders are the last line of defense, the gatekeepers of freedom because we represent the people at the highest risk for abuse, poor people of color.

The book of Matthew teaches, “whatsoever you do unto the least of my brothers, you do unto me.” As public defenders, it is incumbent upon us to open people’s eyes to the suffering around us, open their hearts to the pain of others and give them the strength to make a difference.

Kevin Mitchell is a lawyer and Deputy Public Defender in San Francisco.

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