Meaningful Change: Q&A With Ben Crump
Civil rights attorney Ben Crump has long fought to raise the voices of victims of police brutality and has called for substantial reforms to law enforcement practices to prevent future tragedies. As the country faces a reckoning on the disparate treatment of people of color in the justice system, Crump spoke with Trial about seizing this moment to achieve equal justice for all.September 2020
You represent the families of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Their deaths and others at the hands of police officers have ignited protests nationwide and led to widespread demands for change. Do you think this is finally the moment for change and that justice is possible?
I really do. When I look at the multicultural, multigenerational, multi-geographical protests of people saying “we can’t breathe,” I honestly believe this is truly our time. When Philonise Floyd, George Floyd’s brother, and I testified before Congress in June, we said that this is our opportunity, this is our moment in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. We must have systemic reform that will change the culture and the behavior of policing in America to prevent any more of these unnecessary killings of marginalized citizens—and to prevent the burning of cities across America in protest to our legal system treating these Black lives as if they do not matter.
When Trial last interviewed you in 2017,1 we asked you what police departments can do to prevent future tragedies from happening—and here we are still watching countless ones play out. What meaningful police reforms are needed?
I think we have to focus on abolishing the chokehold. It’s unconscionable that in 2020 we’re still allowing police to choke people into submission, causing deaths. And then we have Breonna Taylor, who was shot to death after Louisville, Ky., police used a battering ram to enter her apartment in the middle of the night to execute a no-knock warrant with no warning. We have to abolish the dangerous, unconstitutional, and unnecessary no-knock warrants. Black people are only 13% of the population, but a disproportionately high percentage of the no-knock warrants are executed against Black citizens.
It’s really about the mistrust between communities of color and law enforcement agencies. We must have transparency plus accountability. It’s the only way we can bridge that divide of mistrust. It can’t be that when Black people are accused of crimes, the book is always thrown at us, but when we’re the victims, the rules are turned on their heads, and the police are never held accountable. We can’t have two justice systems in America, one for Black America and one for white America. We have to have equal justice for all citizens who make up the United States of America.
That’s why we talk about these body camera videos—it should be a federal offense of obstruction of justice if a police officer brutalizes and severely injures or kills a person and that police officer doesn’t have their body camera on. We want the police to get due process, but we also absolutely believe there should be a rebuttable presumption that the police officer did something nefarious or illegal if that body camera video wasn’t recording when the officer’s actions caused someone’s severe injury or, worse, someone’s wrongful death.
And then the last thing we need to change is qualified immunity. Right now, police officers, no matter how they kill or brutalize marginalized citizens, are not held accountable. That’s because qualified immunity has become blanket immunity for police officers in America.
How can other trial lawyers help victims of police misconduct?
If more of us took on these civil rights cases, trial lawyers would see that it allows them to be fulfilled in a way that might resemble why they went to law school in the first place—to help people, to help the marginalized and the disenfranchised and the most vulnerable in our society. I think the best thing to do is to try to handle these civil rights cases with the same intensity and tenacity that we do any other civil action to redress a wrong. The world needs plaintiff trial lawyers, now more than ever, to speak up and give a voice to the voiceless.
Any final thoughts you would like to share?
When we go into courtrooms, we must remind everybody, the judges and the jury, of Thomas Jefferson’s words in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. They may know those words to quote them, but the question is, do they really believe them? When Thomas Jefferson says “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” do they really believe that, or are they just quoting the words because they sound good? We need them to believe it.
Ben Crump is the founder of the national law firm Ben Crump Law, headquartered in Washington, D.C. Kate Halloran is the senior associate editor for Trial.
1. Interview With Benjamin Crump by Diane M. Zhang, The Fight for a Better America, Trial 26 (Oct. 2017), www.justice.org/trial/2017CrumpQA.