I want to thank the Urban League and Marc Morial, your CEO, for inviting me to be with you here today. Mayor Morial and I will always share the bond of having served as Mayors together of two of America’s oldest and greatest cities — the Revolutionary Cities of New Orleans and Baltimore. Mayor Morial and I have discussed many issues over the years: issues of justice and injustice, how to rebuild our cities, how to improve our schools, how to create jobs and opportunity for all—and, the topics that I would like to speak with you about today:
How can we save lives?
How can we improve and reform our criminal justice system?
How, together, can we make real the promise of equal protection under the law?
When I ran for Mayor of Baltimore as a long-shot candidate in 1999, it was not because the City was doing well. Despite many well intentioned efforts, our City had become the most violent, addicted and abandoned City in America. Every year we buried nearly 300 young black men who died violent deaths on our streets.
And black lives matter.
I want to share with you a true story from my service as Mayor in those very difficult turnaround years.
It was Oct. 16, 2002. The phone by our bed rang at 3 a.m., loud and insistent. I suppose it is possible to get a phone call at that hour with good news, but phone calls to mayors at that hour are never good news. On this night, Deputy Mayor, Jeanne Hitchcock, had the rotating duty of screening emergency calls…
“Mayor?” Jeanne ssaid, “there’s been a fire,… A very bad fire,… in a house,… with a mother,… and we think five children. The father is real bad too. He is in intensive care, very badly burned.”
“Awful,” I said.
But something in Jeanne’s voice told me the story wasn’t over.
“Mayor… police and fire here believe it was intentional,” she said. “They are very shaken up,… I’m here. Neighbors are here. They are very angry—they say it was retaliation.”
“Retaliation??? For what?” I asked. “By who?”
“For calling the police about drug dealers,” Jeanne said. “This is so terrible.”
And indeed it was.
In my 23 years of public service as a Baltimore city councilman, as a two-term mayor, and as a two-term governor of Maryland, the tragic events of that early morning are seared into my memory forever. The reality was this: Carnell and Angela Dawson lived with their five children in a row house at the corner of Preston and Eden Streets on the Eastside of Baltimore.
Mom and Dad both worked. They loved their children, provided for them, reveled in their individual talents and ways. But like so many families in so many neighborhoods of our city on those days, they were threatened, harassed and made miserable by the open air drug dealing in their neighborhood. They would call the police to complain.
Mrs. Dawson would dutifully go to court to testify against the young men who were making life on her street unbearable. Two weeks earlier, someone had thrown a Molotov cocktail through the Dawson’s living room window. The bottle failed to explode. The police responded. There were no witnesses.
The State’s Attorney’s office and the city Housing Department offered to relocate the family for their safety.
The Dawsons refused to be driven from their own home and neighborhood. The Eastern District police gave the house special attention. The district major personally rode by the house at 1:20 a.m.
Like many families in humble neighborhoods who have a hard time making ends meet, the Dawsons were keeping their home heated that night by leaving their gas oven open and on. At 2:20 a.m., a 21-year-old young man from the neighborhood—more of a look-out than a dealer—lit the rag that topped a full glass bottle of gasoline. He kicked in the Dawson’s front door while the family slept and tossed the bottle inside, where it smashed on the stairs.
The old row house was engulfed in flames in seconds. Everyone in the house died quickly and painfully, except for Mr. Dawson who clung to life badly burned.
I stood in line a couple of days later with the good people of East Baltimore as, together, we filed in respect at March Funeral Home by the closed little caskets, with the children’s school portraits framed on top of each. As the perpetrator was brought to federal trial, Angela Dawson’s mother and other relatives made clear to the prosecutor that they did not want to see the death penalty pursued. They did not want these deaths to lead to one more death. Life without parole was the sentence imposed.
To this day, it is impossible for me to think of the Dawson’s without becoming very sad and emotional.
I suppose it always will be.
Their little house became our Alamo.
The Dawsons are buried together at Dulaney Valley Cemetery – the same resting place of so many of Baltimore’s fallen — black and white, police and fire fighters who have given their lives in the line of duty. Every time I visit that cemetery on fallen heroes day or other sad occasions, I walk just over the hill to the Dawsons’ grave.
And I still wait, in hope, for love and peace and justice to have the final word.
You and I are part of a living, self-creating mystery called the United States of America. Our country was not born in perfection, or without original sin. Because of the sacrifices and perseverance of so many in generation after generation, we have moved toward a fuller respect for one another, we have moved toward a more equal justice and more equal protection under the law.
But we are not there yet.
Every headline or video of official abuse, injustice, indifference, killing, or murder reminds us of how far we still have to go.
Every story reminds us that Americans of color must endure a constant state of random vulnerability even when they’re just driving to work.
And all of us must ask, how many individuals, like Sandra Bland, have been subject to abusive arrest when the cameras weren’t rolling?
How many names will we never know?
How many Walter Scotts have been savagely shot down – and then setup to take the blame for it – when cameras and cell phone technology were not rolling?
How many names don’t we know?
There are certain beliefs we share as Americans: a belief in the dignity of every individual, a belief in our responsibility to advance the common good, and an understanding that we’re all in this together.
In our idea of country, there is no such thing as a spare American.
As Americans, we believe that you do not surrender your human dignity when you change lanes without signaling. As Americans, we believe that you do not surrender your human dignity when your tail light burns out. And no American surrenders their dignity—whatever the emergency—because of the color of their skin.
If you do not believe that, you are not qualified to run a city.
If you do not believe that, you are not qualified to wear a badge and carry a gun.
Leading my city and my state forward to achieve the largest violent crime reductions in modern history, we strived every day to become smarter about public safety policies and actions that actually work to save lives, and redeem lives. The constant search for better ways shaped our approach to courts, to prisons, to increased drug treatment, to policing and policing the police, and to everything else.
From 1999 forward, a thousand fewer black men died violent deaths in Baltimore thanks to the biggest ten year improvement in public safety of any big city in America. 52 days into office as Governor, we closed the most notorious and violent prison in our state, the Maryland House of Corrections.
By the time I left office as Governor in January, we had reduced violent crime to a 35-year low in Maryland, we reduced recidivism by 15 percent, we reduced our incarceration rate to a twenty year low, And we reduced new prison admissions by 19% compared to ten years before.
By doing the things that work, like expanding reentry programs, dramatically increasing drug and mental health treatment, expanding education and workforce training inside the wall, giving ex-offenders an ID card before release so that they can apply for jobs, housing, and benefits.
We also did this by doing away with the things that clearly did not work: we decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, and we restored voting rights to 52,000 citizens with old felony records. Not on our first try, not on the second try, but finally on the third try, we abolished the Death Penalty in Maryland.
Lots of people can talk about criminal justice reform, I have actually done it.
Today, I’d like to talk to you about a new agenda for criminal justice reform for our entire nation. Policing will always be locally controlled and locally directed. But there is a vital role for the federal government to fulfill in setting standards, and funding programs that serve the larger cause of justice and the common good we share.
We can reduce racial disparities, we can reduce and redirect the dollars we are currently spending on incarceration, and we can give more of our people opportunities to turn their lives around.
First, our laws must allow punishments to suit the crime.
Congress appears to be making progress to reduce mandatory minimums for non-violent crimes, and I support this important bi-partisan and long overdue effort at the federal level. As President, I will root out the mindless sentencing disparities like the one that still exists between the possession of crack and powder cocaine;
And as President I will forge a consensus to repeal the death penalty in America and thereby remove the United States from the small group of nations responsible for a majority of the world’s public executions.
Second, I will take actions that put the work of rehabilitation at the center of our justice agenda. Our nation currently has the highest incarceration rate of any nation in the free world. We must recognize that investments we make behind bars pay for themselves by reducing recidivism.
Our federal government must expand investments in re-entry programs that work—programs that provide job training and help in securing employment. We must support community services that help people return to their families and transition back to a productive life.
To that end, our federal government must lead by example in banning the box so that a past criminal record does not prevent a person who has paid their debt to society from obtaining gainful employment.
Third, we must recognize that many people who fall into our criminal justice system would be better treated by our public health system. Police are often our first responders to people in crisis.
As President, I will invest in training and equipping law enforcement to better prepare officers for encounters with those suffering from mental illness. And, I will dramatically expand our federal commitment to drug treatment and our investment in community mental health services.
Fourth, we must improve policing, and the way we police the police. When I first ran for Mayor of Baltimore in 1999, I was not endorsed by the Fraternal Order of the Police. In that election, I promised—for the protection of both our neighbors and our police—we would do a much better job of policing our police.
With better recruitment, better training, and better pay, that is exactly what we did. There are things every police department must do every day to improve the trust necessary between citizens and the police officers who are sworn to serve and protect us — all of us. Among those things — an adequately staffed Internal Affairs Division, an independently staffed Civilian Review Board, Reverse Integrity Stings to safe-guard the professional integrity of every police force.
Our federal government can play a vital role in lifting up these practices and advancing their adoption across the country. Today, every police department in the nation reports the seven federally measured UCR crimes—among them, murder rape, and robbery—and reports them in a timely, accurate, and publicly open way. As President, I will require every police department to publicly report all custodial deaths, all incidents involving use of lethal force, and all complaints of discourtesy and excessive force.
We cannot understand what we do not see.
We cannot improve what we do not measure.
But once we measure, once we see, and once we understand, we can certainly improve.
The reality is that racial injustice and law enforcement in America have been painfully intertwined since the first days of our nation.
If we are to have any hope of improving police and community relations in America — for our own sakes and for the sakes of our children and grandchildren — these measures of professional policing must be open and visible for all to see.
We must also advance the deployment of new technology like body cameras and cruiser cameras that promote openness, transparency, and accountability. Technology won’t fix everything. But it is a vital step toward achieving accountable, respectful, professional policing. We must free ourselves from the tyranny of “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”
Every policy must pass the test of whether it saves lives, or redeems lives. This is the ongoing work we share as a nation – to do more of what works, and less of what does not. To create an America where there is truly “liberty and justice for all.” The great Barbara Jordan once said, “The gap between the promise and reality of America can one day be finally closed,… We believe that.”
Barbara Jordan grew up amidst some of the harshest segregation in our country, denied everything from the use of a water fountain to admission to her state’s university. But she never stopped believing that we could make the promise of America a reality.
She became the first African American in the Texas Senate since the days of Reconstruction. She became the first African American in Texas ever sent to Congress.
And there she fought for voting rights and human rights and what was right.
One of her very first acts in Congress was to advance a funding and reform effort to strengthen Prairie View A&M – which happened to be the school where Sandra Bland was to work, the school where Sandra Bland never made it to work on July 10th.
Barbara Jordan was fond of saying that when it came to justice, people who are right must do battle with people who have the might. When Barbara Jordan passed away – not yet even 60 years old at the time – the Houston Chronicle headline read: “A Voice for Justice Dies.”
I don’t believe that is true – because voices for justice never die. Voices for justice will always resonate.
Sandra Bland told the police officer she couldn’t wait to get to court so that her voice would be heard – we are hearing her voice right now.
We can make ourselves a more just nation, a more just people.
We can teach all of our children a more generous, compassionate, and caring way forward.
There is more that unites us than divides us.
“We must help each other if we are to succeed.”
And, love, peace, and justice will have the final word.