By: David Rubenstein  | 

Panels on Criminal Justice System and Minorities Presents Problem and Call to Action

As tensions rise nationwide about police brutality and race, discussions of the criminal justice system and minorities were raised in a panel hosted by the YU Tzedek Society, Stern Social Justice Society, and Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Honors Program. The panel discussion came just one day after a grand jury indicted Police Officer Peter Liang for manslaughter. Liang shot and killed Akai Gurley in the stairwell of Brooklyn housing project last November.

The panel consisted of four distinguished experts. Cardozo Law School Professor Ekow Yankah, who specializes in legal philosophy, criminal theory and political theory, has written about relevant cases in publication such as The New York Times and Huffington Post. Michael Lyles, a fellow at Cardozo’s Center for Public Service Law, has served as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan. Sarah Lustbader, public defender in the Bronx, has written about these issues as well. Her articles on law enforcement and minorities have appeared in The Week and the Washington Post. RIETS’s Senior Mashgiach Ruchani Rabbi Yosef Blau presented the religious considerations of the matter.

Dr. Gabriel Cwilich, Dean of the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Honors Program, opened the program, praising the student initiative that assembled the event. “The students showed leadership on the intellectual level by discussing what should be the conversation in a university setting about a controversial topic that is important.”

Yosie Friedman (YC ’17), President of the YU Tzedek Society and organizer of the event, made the perambulatory remarks and introduced the speakers. “In light of recent events, including the Ferguson decision, Eric Garner decision, and the murder of two NYPD police officers, this debate” about how to balance peace, security, and justice for each member of society has become “ever more heated.” Friedman assembled the panel in light of the recent tension.

Elliot Friedman, Yosie’s brother, moderated the panel. An honors graduate of Yeshiva College (’11) and RIETS (’13) and currently a student at Yale Law School, Elliot has represented disadvantaged clients and guest-lectured at Stern College on legal philosophy. “Being the voice of the disadvantaged in the legal values is an embodiment of the Jewish values I learned at YU and RIETS,” the elder Friedman remarked. He aspires to become a public defender.

Maddie (Tavin) Zimilover (Stern ’15), Stern Social Justice Society President and co-organizer of the panel, concluded the event and summarized its lessons: “We brought the problems at hand to the forefront of awareness and we learned about ways in which we can deal with the issue.”

The panel filled Belfer Hall’s fourth floor lecture hall. “I came because I had felt so helpless at the time of the [Michael Brown and Eric Garner] murders,” said a Stern College sophomore. “I heard some great speakers tonight.”

The discussion began with a question addressed to the panel in general, each panelist offering his or her answer. The rounds that followed directed questions at one or two of the speakers.

The consensus seems to have been that law enforcement and the criminal justice system are inclined to be unfavorable towards minorities at best, and intrinsically racist and discriminatory at worst. Professor Yankah stressed that there is a problem in the way policing is done in this country, and this problem becomes manifest in incidents like the shootings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

“When you’re returning from the gym in a hoodie, it’s completely different from when you’re coming back from the office in a suit,” Yankah said, referring to police being more suspicious of African-Americans depending on their dress.

Mr. Lyles echoed this sentiment, drawing on his experience as a private defense attorney. He shared the story of a client who received a completely different offer from the prosecution when the prosecution learned that the defendant had a college degree. “When you use that mentality to decide who gets bail and who gets arraignment,” you can see how race is a driving force in law enforcement and the criminal justice system.

“We have to ask who the system was set up for,” Ms. Lustbader urged. Her conclusion: “it was designed for [people like] me, growing in white Manhattan.” Her description of the problem was more colorful, at one point sharing her reaction to racism she encountered from family members at a Thanksgiving meal: “I wanted to throw up.”

Mr. Lyles noted that one must keep in mind that police are also human beings. “They just want to go home at the end of the day, just like you and me.” How race plays into the police’s quest for self-preservation, however, is a “big question” that needs to be addressed. “We all have to be invested in asking these questions and holding police officers accountable when they make a mistake, but also understanding that they have a tough job.”

To some, the panel seemed one-sided. No representative of the police was present at the event. “We tried hard to bring a person directly involved with law enforcement but they all said that they rather not come,” Dr. Cwilich explained.

Political science major Uri Segelman (YC ’15) thought that the panel “was another police bashfest,” which failed to “mention in any serious way the split-second decisions police officers must make as well as the dangers they face.” Segelman lamented that “it is yet again unfortunate to see a panel discussing the police and minority communities yet failing to mention incredibly important and relevant statistics regarding black crime.”

Is there hope for a solution to the problem addressed by the panel? “Until this [problem] becomes a human issue,” Lyles is skeptical that there will be much progress. Ms. Lustbader suggested that equipping law enforcement with body cameras would be helpful. Rabbi Blau appealed to examples of “community policing” wherein laws are enforcement by community members whose interest is presumably the best interest of the community. Professor Yankah urged, “We need to start asking, how can we make an environment in which we care about those whom we police?”

About the turnout for the event, Mrs. Zimilover remarked, “This is a great way to see that YU students care about reaching beyond, into the community around us.”