police culture

Prisons and police culture gone rogue

This post originally appeared in the St Louis American

By Christi Griffin

There are few who did not rise to the occasion, who did not donate, plan or pray. There are few who did not view the senseless and brutal shooting of Michael Brown as a reflection of the lack of value placed on the lives of black males. There are few who did not vow to carry on, to demand justice for Michael Brown and all who died before him.

But there are also few who realize the connection between brazen police shootings of young, black males and entire system of so-called criminal justice. They don’t see a carefully designed plan to demoralize African Americans and bolster incarcerations. They don’t see that the failure to vote out a prosecutor whose disregard for the African-American community has empowered law enforcement to shoot to kill without fear of prosecution.

For every white officer who goes unindicted for gunning down black boys, a message is sent to others. To the police, no matter how disproportionate the response or incompetent the confrontation, there’s little to fear as to consequence. To black boys, it’s a message of diminished value. To the world, it’s one that they are above the law.

The U.S. system of mass incarceration is big business. It generates over $72 billion a year in profits for corporations and those who buy their stock. Mass incarceration breeds on poverty, unemployment, disrespect and hate. It breeds on generations of black males once again learning their place; castrated by Tasers, billy sticks and guns.

It breeds on their submission to the constant taunting of racist and overbearing police – routine traffic stops turned into searches, routine searches turned into arrests. It’s a circuitous practice that criminalizes black males for behavior routinely ignored when engaged in by whites. It’s a practice that has prison cells disproportionately filled with minorities.

With a staggering increase in the rates of incarceration, the correlation between prisons and a police culture gone rogue should be clear. Those who profit from prisons, whether private or not, have bought their way into the pockets of politicians, courts and police. They have insured that their investments bring a return and that prison beds stay filled.

All prisons generate profits, but since the inception of private prisons 30 years ago their profits have soared. Essentially engaged in human trafficking on the stock exchange, their populations have increased by 800 percent.

There are few who ever thought St. Louis would be the epicenter of social change. That the killing of an unarmed teen in Canfield Green would galvanize a region and generate a resolve previously unknown. Outside of St. Louis, there are few who know the protests, violence and meetings are an indication that the days of unchecked police brutality has come to an end.

There’s a price to pay for our sons and that price will be high. We’re tired. We’ve had enough. From this point forward, the words “To Serve and Protect” will include our sons as well.

Christi Griffin police culture

Christi Griffin is the founder of The Ethics Project, a non-profit organization addressing the impact of crime, injustice and incarcerations. She is the author of “Incarcerations in Black and White: The Subjugation of Black America.” See www.TheEthicsProject.org or email TheEthicsProject@gmail.com.

Daryl Atkinson Ban the Box

Daryl Atkinson Interviewed on To the Point about Ban the Box

After 20 years of being “tough on crime,” local cops have arrested almost one third of all Americans. Their records are easily available to banks, college officials and prospective employers, even when their crimes were minor, or they were never charged. Target, Wal-Mart and Bed, Bath & Beyond are among the companies that no longer ask job applicants if they’ve ever been arrested. We hear why the “ban the box” movement is spreading across the country. Now, 60 cities and 12 states have laws that “ban the box” on application forms that asks, “Have You Ever Been Arrested?” We’ll hear what that means for the individuals involved, employers fearing lawsuits for making mistakes – and for public safety.

The Daryl Atkinson interview begins at 15:26.

This piece originally ran on KCRW’s To The Point on August 21, 2014.

written consent

Written consent as a tool of racial equity

Written consent as a tool of racial equity

This piece first appeared on The Durham News website on August 22, 2014. It has been modified to include a video mentioned in the text of the article.

City Manager Tom Bonfield’s report to the City Council this week, in which he announced his plans regarding the embattled Durham Police Department, may lead to a department that is more accountable to the public. However, left unchanged, it is unlikely to make significant progress in reducing the large racial disparities evident in a decade’s worth of data on Durham policing.

Bonfield’s much-anticipated report was a direct response to a seven-month investigation by the Human Relations Commission, which found evidence of “racial bias and racial profiling” in the practices of the department.

The manager notably parted ways with the commission on one the most significant recommendations to emerge from its lengthy deliberations: requiring the use of written consent-to-search forms for vehicle searches in which officers lack probable cause to think a crime has been committed or reason to believe a motorist may be armed.

Such a policy has proven effective in numerous jurisdictions in reducing racial disparities related to run-of-the-mill traffic stops. The form clarifies for the motorist that they have agency over what happens to them and gives officers an opportunity to reflect on whether they have a genuinely race neutral reason for requesting permission to search. It also provides an important safeguard for motorists who deny officers consent to search, only to be searched anyway and have the officer later claim to have obtained verbal permission.

In Durham, black drivers are more than 100 percent more likely to be searched pursuant to a request for consent, although such searches are statistically less likely to uncover contraband than similar searches of whites. Even when a person has nothing illegal to hide, as is typically the case, the stakes are often high for black drivers.

As explored in the recently released Southern Coalition for Social Justice documentary, “Stories of Racial Profiling in Durham,” vehicle searches can be highly invasive, are often humiliating for the individual involved, sometimes result in damaged property, and frequently take half an hour or longer to conduct. Last year, in a city whose black population is approximately 40 percent, over 83 percent of people subjected to a vehicle search were black.

The commission proposed the written consent policy – which was put in place in Fayetteville in 2012 following a recommendation from the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Executives – because of large racial disparities that exist with respect to whom Durham officers search by way of consent. As our documentary reveals, behavior deemed innocuous in white neighborhoods is regularly regarded as suspicious in black ones, often giving rise to unreasonable searches.

While the manager’s proposal to increase the use of cameras will help to promote accountability and may make some dent in the racial search gap, the relevant literature suggests it will not have the same effect on curtailing coercive search behavior as will a written form crystalizing the right to refuse. Just earlier this week, the Fayetteville Observer interviewed a former police officer who explained that, “without a form, law enforcement officers can too easily manipulate or intimidate … drivers into giving consent after being stopped for a minor infraction.” In Durham, the data suggests these sort of coercive practices happen far too often.

Specifically, the high rate of consent searches relative to the number of searches overall is indicative of many officers going on fishing expeditions, with the resulting burden falling almost entirely on black motorists. Of the eight largest cities in the state, Durham posts the highest rate of consent searches of black motorists as a percentage of all searches. Nearly half of all searches (48.2 percent) conducted by Durham PD between 2008 and 2012 fell into this category, a percentage significantly higher than occurred in cities with comparable black populations (Fayetteville, 24.5 percent; Raleigh, 22.9 percent; Winston-Salem, 15.2 percent).

The manager’s report acknowledges the disparities but fails to provide an effective means to reduce them. While strongly encouraging police to document consent, the report ultimately leaves the decision to the discretion of the individual officer. This, all evidence suggests, is a mistake.

Ian A. Mance is an attorney at the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice (www.scsj.org).


Herald-Sun op-ed urges Durham to re-examine marijuana enforcement

This op-ed first appeared in The Herald-Sun on Thursday, August 21, 2014

“Unexplained Racial Disparity”

City Manager Tom Bonfield’s request that the Police Department explain why the vast majority of marijuana arrests in this city are of black people suggests two reactions.

One, and we truly mean this, is – yes! It is exactly right that Bonfield – indeed, anyone – should wonder why 86 percent of the marijuana arrests over the past 18 months have been of African-Americans.

The second reaction, a bit less charitably, might be to wonder why we are just now realizing and focusing on this. We suspect that many black citizens could and would readily have offered that conclusion based on real-world observed evidence.

To be fair, Durham is nothing more than a reflection of national trends in drug enforcement. There is growing national alarm over the troubling evidence that drug enforcement generally has overzealously targeted black citizens. We might also note that our war on drugs has been markedly ineffective at doing anything other than driving our prison population to levels that exceed other developed countries, but that’s an issue for another day.

Bonfield has given police until the end of the year to look into and report back on the “unexplained racial disparity” in the marijuana arrests.  That seems a generous amount of time, but we’re glad there is a deadline.

Nationwide, according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union, “one consistent trend” in drug-law enforcement is “significant racial bias. Despite roughly equal usage rates, blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana.”

Durham exceeds that – our ratio is more like six to one in favor of arresting blacks.  We have no particular reason to think that our city differs dramatically from the national statistics in marijuana use.

True, our population mix is different than the natural norm.  And Durham police make arrests for marijuana possession less often than their counterparts across the nation, including in other major North Carolina cities. But with whites and blacks being roughly equal here – just over 40 percent each of the population – the arrest percentage is double the population percentage of African Americans.

At every level, the consequences of our war on drugs have fallen disproportionately on African-Americans. Increasingly, the country is beginning to realize the impact of this has gone far beyond simple unfairness.  Far too many young African-American men are ending up with prison records that thwart employment opportunities, keep individuals and families in poverty and increase the likelihood of turning to crime in the absence of the prospect of a legitimate job.

The community already is engaged in an important discussion of whether there are racial disparities in law enforcement. Durham has a reputation for confronting these kinds of issues with honest, open debate. Bonfield’s report, and the subsequent police examination for which he has asked, should give us an opportunity to do that on marijuana enforcement.

FADE coalition

FADE Coalition Statement on Durham Racial Profiling Report


We have all witnessed this week in Ferguson, MO, what can happen when a police department becomes unaccountable to the community it serves. Many commentators have pointed to the city’s stop, search, and arrest statistics, while noting that the situation unfolding in Missouri reflects a deep-seated frustration in the city’s African-American community about police harassment and excessive force.

Those frustrations also exist here in Durham, where we have also seen teargas on our streets, and where the racial disparities in law enforcement are even more pronounced than they are in Ferguson. The City Manager’s recommendations, while a step in the right direction, will not change that. While we are glad to see the city finally embrace data review as a management tool to catch problem officers, the City Manager has rejected the HRC recommendation that stood the best chance of measurably reducing large racial disparities in warrantless vehicle searches—the adoption of an across-the-board mandatory written consent-to-search policy. The policy changes relating to home and premises searches are positive developments, but they will not impact most citizen-police interactions, which occur in the context of vehicle stops.

The department has asserted that requiring consent to search be documented in writing during traffic stops would undermine officers’ “situational control,” but this is a false argument. Many police departments that have committed to eliminating racial profiling have embraced this policy without a correlative negative effect on law enforcement. The current policy, which the City Manager would leave unchanged, privileges the convenience of police officers over the right of Durham citizens to be free of racially discriminatory search practices. And the Manager’s decision to make the Department write a report explaining why it only seems to arrest black people for marijuana will make for interesting reading, but it will do nothing to stop the ongoing racial discrimination in drug enforcement.

This report would not exist but for the fact that the Mayor directed the Human Relations Commission to investigate racial discrimination by the police, and yet this report says very little about the issue of race. You cannot have a race neutral solution to a race-based problem. We continue to believe that racial equity considerations—and not the practices of “peer cities”—should guide the city’s deliberations. We hope that when City Council takes this issue up later this month that they keep this in the forefront of their minds.

–FADE Coalition


The five FADE Coalition policy recommendations, proposed to City Council in September 2013 are as follows:

(1) Mandate use of written consent-to-search forms for all consent based searches.

(2) Designate marijuana enforcement the city’s lowest law enforcement priority.

(3) Mandate the periodic review of racial stop, search, and arrest data as an officer management tool.

(4) Mandate racial equity training for all Durham police officers.

(5) Strengthen the mandate and authority of the Durham Civilian Police Review Board.

These recommendations have been endorsed by the following organizations: ACLU of North Carolina; Action NC; Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People; Durham Congregations in Action; Durham Congregations, Associations & Neighborhoods (CAN); Durham N.A.A.C.P.; Durham People’s Alliance; George H. White Bar Association; NC Public Defenders’ Committee on Racial Equity; Southern Coalition for Social Justice; Southerners on New Ground (SONG).


Employment Opportunity Legal Corps

Position Announcement: Employment Opportunity Legal Corps Staff Attorney

Employment Opportunity Legal Corps Staff Attorney (2 positions available)

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ) has an immediate opening for two licensed attorneys to work in our Clean Slate Program. These positions are available through generous funding from Equal Justice Works and AmeriCorps for their Employment Opportunity Legal Corps. The positions are for one year, with the option to renew for a second year. The positions will exclusively focus on improving the employment opportunities and outcomes of people with criminal records via tools such as Certificates of Relief, Expungements, Driver’s License Restorations, and Professional License Restorations. Click here for the complete SCSJ Employment Opportunity Legal Corps Attorney job description.


SCSJ is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization founded in August, 2007 whose mission is to promote justice by empowering people of color and economically disadvantaged communities to defend and advance their political, social and economic rights. SCSJ’s focus areas are community-driven, and currently include voting rights, criminal justice reform, environmental justice, and human rights.  For more information on our work and our unique community lawyering approach, visit our website at www.scsj.org.

Required Qualifications:

  • Licensed to practice law in the State of North Carolina
  • Passion for helping people with criminal convictions overcome barriers to employment
  • Ability to work as part of a multi-disciplinary team
  • Ability to work with minimal paralegal support (all attorneys share a single paralegal)
  • Commitment to social justice principles and to SCSJ’s community-lawyering model of practice

This job does not require previous legal experience, but candidates must already be licensed to practice law in the state of North Carolina in order to be considered.

Start Date:  September 2014. Location:  SCSJ’s office in Durham, North Carolina. An Employment Opportunity Legal Corps Staff Attorney Job description is available HERE


Equal Justice Works provides a $24,200 living allowance and supplemental benefits package for Employment Opportunity Legal Corps participants. The total compensation package is up to $48,000 based on eligible expenses as determined by Equal Justice Works, and includes the following:

  • $24,200 Living Allowance
  • Housing allowance
  • Eligibility to place all qualified student loans into forbearance and receive an interest accrual payment at the end of service
  • $5,500 education award on successful completion of service
  • Opportunity to attend a national training program to develop leadership skills, learn effective practices to accomplish your projects and meet colleagues from across the country
  • Child care assistance (if income eligible)
  • Medical and dental insurance
  • State and local bar dues
  • Mileage reimbursement and per diem when applicable
  • Retirement plan contribution
  • Training and continuing legal education in relevant areas


Candidates should send a cover letter, resume and legal writing sample to Shannah@scsj.org. Applicants are encouraged to visit our website at www.scsj.org to learn more about the organization. Successful candidates will undergo state, federal, and NSLPR background checks prior to formal offer.

Positions will be filled on a rolling basis.

David Price

Rep. David Price to visit SCSJ

David Price to Visit Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ)

Following SCSJ staff attorney Daryl Atkinson’s recent trip to the White House to receive a Champions of Change award for his extraordinary work to facilitate employment opportunities for individuals formerly involved in the justice system, Representative David Price will be visiting SCSJ on Monday, July 28th to learn more about our social justice work in the fields of criminal justice reform, voting rights, environmental justice, and human rights. A brief reception with light refreshments will be held from 11:15am-12:00pm. The reception is free and open to the public.
WHAT:            Open Reception with Congressman Price and the staff of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.
WHEN:           11:15 a.m. EDT
Monday, July 28.
WHO:             David Price, U.S. House of Representatives
                        Daryl V. Atkinson, Staff Attorney, Southern Coalition for Social Justice
                        Anita Earls, Executive Director, Southern Coalition for Social Justice
                        SCSJ Staff and Interns
WHERE:         SCSJ Offices
Hamilton Centre Office Park
                        1415 NC Hwy 54, Suite 101
                        Durham, NC 27707   

For more information please contact Shoshannah Sayers at (919) 323-3380 x 154 or shannah@scsj.org.

Clean Slate

Clean Slate Work: The Necessity of Second Chances for Justice-Involved People

Aaron Bryant is a summer intern at SCSJ, focusing on community organizing for our Criminal Justice Reform program. Aaron wrote the following reflections of his first experience facilitating a Clean Slate Clinic with SCSJ.

My First Clean Slate Clinic

A few staffers and I walked into the Holton Career Center early Saturday July 12 to begin to set up for the day. There were around 20 or so soon-to-be clients that were waiting outside of the building before the event officially began. The people who came out early signaled that the services we offer are needed in our community. More importantly, what was evident is that participants are not a passive group; the people are ready to take action to change the way they are viewed by their government, their communities and each other.

The Clean Slate Clinic was a multi-pronged approach aimed at helping justice involved people exercise agency. The registration process for the clinic helps SCSJ determine who is eligible for our free legal services. After going through the clean slate registration process, clients went into the auditorium for a speech on the injustices of the criminal justice system.

Clients were shown two documentaries, the first called The House I Live In, detailing the state sponsored criminality and injustices involved in the War on Drugs. The House We Live In dealt with socially constructed views on race. Information was also handed out to clients both inside and outside the auditorium about work that SCSJ has done with Ban the Box initiatives, empirical evidence of racial profiling by the Durham Police Department and steps the city has taken in hiring people with a criminal record since Durham adopted Ban the Box in 2011. SCSJ also provided people with opportunities to share their experiences of involvement with the criminal justice system.

Participants at the clinic were given information about local organizations that offer free help in critical life areas such as education and job training, medical access and rent assistance. Members of the F.A.D.E. coalition were present and helped distribute information about their organizations work at changing local enforcement of drug related offences. SCSJ also partnered with SpiritHouse and Nicole Campbell of the Durham NAACP to register voters. The justice involved community is one of the hardest constituents to register to vote. This is because of the prevalence of misinformation this community has about their rights to vote. We used this voter registration opportunity to let people know that once they complete their sentence, including parole or probation, they are eligible to vote.

The Clinic’s main goal was to change the ways in which justice involved people participate in advocacy and politics. SpiritHouse helped facilitate a legislative exercise where clients introduced new laws that would help the justice involved earn a true clean slate. In meeting with attorneys and law clerks, clients were given a one on one meeting to let them know both the possibilities and limitations of what our organization can do to help clean their records.

To see people throughout the day register for the clinic, dozens register to vote and many more take part in brainstorming a legislative solution to their problems showed me that those directly affected by injustice are those that have a solution for injustice.

During the clinic we set up a Storytelling Project where people could choose to share their personal story of involvement with the criminal justice system. Here’s what people had to say about how they became justice involved and how it has changed their lives forever.

People Change from SCSJ on Vimeo.

Post by SCSJ Troan Intern Aaron Bryant

clean slate

Aaron Bryant, SCSJ Intern

people change

People Change: Why Clean Slate Matters

America has 5% of the world’s total population but 25% of the world’s prisoners. 65 million people have a criminal record in the United States. Having a criminal conviction can trigger over 900 civil barriers including barriers to employment, housing and education.

At our July 12th Clean Slate Clinic we set up a camera and asked formerly incarcerated people to share their stories. This is what they told us.

People Change from SCSJ on Vimeo.

People Change, but their record stays with them forever.

Without legal representation, all of the people in this video will be haunted by their charges for the rest of their lives. And a criminal record doesn’t just hurt a person’s access to employment and housing – in many cases people even lose their driver’s licenses as a result of a conviction. When people no longer have access to housing, jobs, or even transportation it is difficult to see how they can put food on the table for themselves and their families. Charity is helpful, but it only goes so far. What really helps is access to free Clean Slate services from organizations like SCSJ. Donate today to provide a second chance for a person with a criminal record.

Give a Second Chance. Because People Change.

Every day SCSJ receives requests for Clean Slate assistance from people throughout North Carolina. At the present, we have over 600 individuals hoping to receve Clean Slate services from us. Every client is provided free legal servives, but those servies are not free for SCSJ to provide. In addition to staff time there are fees for client background checks, court filings, and travel. An SCSJ attorney must travel to the county where a person was charged to file for relief, and again to appear before a judge to formally request that relief. All told, each client’s case costs SCSJ an average of $500. Your financial support provides second chances. Please consider a monthly donation to support SCSJ’s Clean Slate Work. Give a second chance today. Because people change. And everyone deserves a second chance.

Video by SCSJ Troan Intern Evey Wilson.