April 5, 2021

“We are at a pivotal time for criminal justice in this country.”

In delivering the inaugural William S. Beinecke lecture on March 29, New York state Attorney General Letitia James reflected on the nationwide reckoning surrounding criminal justice reform.

The societal idea of what is fair, and what criminal justice should be, James said, is vastly different than what it was just 10 years ago. Police violence disproportionately impacts Black people, she said, and with more cameras and cellphones than ever before, it’s impossible to ignore these harms.

In 1984, an elderly disabled Black woman named Eleanor Bumpurs was shot and killed by an NYPD officer during a city-ordered eviction. James was in law school at the time. 

“It was a wakeup call for me,” she said. “It made me more determined than ever to use the law both as a sword and as a shield—[a sword to] to strike down injustice, and a shield to protect the innocent.” 

James was working in the New York state assembly when the NYPD fatally shot Amadou Diallo outside of his apartment building in 1999. She remembers 2006, when Sean Bell was killed by the NYPD in Queens on the day before his wedding. 

And James recalls working as NYC public advocate in 2014 when Eric Garner was killed by the police. She went to court to demand the offending officer’s prior disciplinary records be released, a special prosecutor appointed, and the grand jury minutes released to the public. 

“Our peaceful protests and our pleas for reform were rebuffed,” she said. It was five years before the officer was finally fired. 

James was elected New York State attorney general in 2018. She was the first African American and first woman to hold the position. Through her work in this office, she has had to confront the fact that the vast majority of police shootings and killings involve individuals with mental health issues or substance abuse disorders. Families often call 911 for emergency medical help when their loved ones are in a state of crisis, but this can become a death sentence.

Daniel Prude, who was killed after being restrained by police officers in Rochester, NY, in March 2020, had been in a state of excited delirium and under the influence of drugs when his brother called 911.

This isn’t unique to her office, James said. Nationwide, people with untreated mental illnesses are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter. 

“Death could have been avoided, and should have been avoided,” James said. “But it required someone with the expertise and the training to deal with individuals who are in the throes of mental illness.”

There’s a twofold problem with our system, James said. Officers can use deadly force indiscriminately and with consequence, and there’s no way to hold police accountable for killings. In addition, we treat mental illness and poverty as crimes. The vast majority of people in the criminal justice system, James noted, suffer from mental illness, poverty, and racism.

As attorney general, James has taken a number of steps in an effort to reform the system. She advocated to have the attorney general act as a special prosecutor in charge of investigating unarmed police killings, to eliminate the conflict of interest that arises when local district attorneys, who work closely with the police, have jurisdiction over police discipline.

Further, the centerpiece of her approach is to amend the law to make the use of force the absolute last resort. She also supports embracing technology, like body cameras, and changing grand jury secrecy rules to make trials more transparent to the public. Finally, she believes mental health professionals, not the police, should respond to mental health crises.

William Eimicke moderated the Q&A session and began by asking whether it would be a good idea to involve outside experts in redesigning police training. He thinks academics, military, mental health experts, diplomats, and even sports teams could help with developing conflict resolution and use of force training.

“I always support individuals who can move institutions forward,” James responded. The NYPD has often been hostile to change, and she supports bringing in outside expertise to train not only new officers, but also senior officers.

One audience member asked about the limits of technology such as body cameras, which have already been expanded extensively throughout the country but have failed to lead to significant change in police violence or accountability for officers.

While cameras have increased transparency and galvanized protests and calls to redistribute police funding, James conceded that changes in the law are necessary as well.

Various reforms can bring us a step closer to change, “but there is so much more to be done,” James said. “That’s where Columbia comes in.”

At SIPA, James co-teaches Rethinking Policing in the 21st Century with Basil Smikle. The class has been following the trial of Derek Chauvin, who is currently on trial in Minneapolis for the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, and has welcomed guest speakers including NYC mayoral candidates, violence interrupters, and Black Lives Matter activists.

“I need students with bright minds, individuals who thirst for knowledge, who believe in an exchange of ideas, to come forward,” James added. “We need you now. The state needs you, the nation needs you.”

“It’s because of all of the young students in my class and all of the young students at Columbia, that I have great faith in this movement and in this moment.”

—Aastha Uprety MPA ’21

Beinecke Lecture featuring Letitia James
March 29