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NIU Law hosts inaugural Race and the Law Conversations on police reform

September 8, 2020

Top row from left: Dean Cassandra Hill and Sharon Fairley. Bottom row: Paul Cain and Paige Fernandez.

NIU College of Law hosted its new lecture series—Race and the Law Conversations— on Wednesday, August 26.  The inaugural conversation, “Understanding Issues of Police Accountability and Reform,” featured distinguished panelists Sharon Fairley, Professor of Law at the University of Chicago Law School and former Chief Administrator of the Independent Police Review Authority in Chicago, along with Paige Fernandez, Policing Policy Advisor for the ACLU National Political Advocacy Department. NIU Law Professor Paul Cain moderated the discussion.

Both Fairley and Fernandez touched on a variety of policing issues including the racial origins of policing, police department budgets, defunding vs. reform, divestment of resources, lack of community trust and the massive threat of police unions to police accountability and reform.

Fairley pointed out the difficulty in police reform due to the “warrior culture” ingrained in police departments, a culture that has been decades in the making, and that it will take time to change this culture. She discussed the internal and external factors that impact reform and accountability by noting that change must start at the top with the leadership and stricter policies and more effective discipline must be implemented. She also acknowledged the importance of public activism driving change in how policing is responsive to community concerns.

Fernandez reported that, despite national crime rates continuing to decline, spending on police has dramatically outpaced expenditures on community services and programs that are known to build stable, safe and healthy communities. One of the more staggering statistics she conveyed was that, according to the FBI, out of the 10.3 million arrests made every year in this country, only 5% are considered to be the most serious crimes.  This suggests the remaining 95% are a mix of lower-level offenses for which the police are spending a vast majority of time.  In addition, many of these lower-level offenses could be prevented with investments that address underfunded community services including education, mental health and job training – just to name a few of the basic needs of survival that provide opportunities for more people to thrive.

Following their presentations, Fairley and Fernandez addressed a number of questions from the moderator and the attendees.

The Race and the Law Conversations series was created to provide a platform with expert panelists who will engage in much needed conversations on a wide range of racial and social justice issues including, but not limited to, racial inequality, police brutality, and mass incarceration.  Save the date for our next Conversation on voting rights and election which will be held on Wednesday, October 21.

Watch the Race and the Law recording on Understanding Issues of Police Accountability and Reform.