Prominent lawyer points to "larger disease" behind deadly police shootings

Equal Justice Initiative founder
Equal Justice Initiative founder 06:46

As the country continues to mourn, protest and express outrage over last week's deadly police shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota, one prominent lawyer who challenges discrimination in the criminal justice system is convinced the racial tensions between police and minority communities are "symptoms of a larger disease."

"It began during the time of slavery when the great evil, for me, was not involuntary servitude or forced labor. It really was this narrative of racial differences, ideology of white supremacy that we created," said Bryan Stevenson, founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization that serves clients whose cases may have been impacted by racial bias or prosecutorial misconduct.

Baton Rouge protesters arrested 03:04

Stevenson, whose organization has helped win releases, reversals or relief for more than 115 wrongly-condemned prisoners on death row, said the U.S. has not "adequately acknowledged" its history of racial inequality. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery in the country, didn't address the issue, he added, and thereafter the nation saw lynchings of African-Americans for decades.

"We tolerated victimizations of black and brown people who were terrorized, and then we codified a racial hierarchy through segregation. And then we passed the Civil Rights Act, but we've never dealt with this presumption. And today, black and brown people in America are burdened with a presumption of dangerousness and guilt," Stevenson said.

The racial prejudices hit close to home for Stevenson, a Harvard Law School graduate who has been honored with numerous awards and honorary doctorates throughout his career.

"I have been pulled out of my car and police officers have threatened to blow my brains out because of this presumption. And it doesn't matter how smart you are, how educated you are, you will go places in this country and you will be presumed dangerous. And that culture, this culture, has been created by this history that we don't acknowledge," Stevenson said.

Training officers about implicit bias is the beginning of reversing course on this culture of policing, he said.

"There are hundreds of thousands of black men and women and children in this country that have stories to tell about how dangerous it is when they are encountering police. And it's unfair to burden black and brown people in this country with the obligation to navigate police encounters [safely]," Stevenson said. "The burden is on you as a black and brown person to make sure you say and do the things that avoid some tragedy -- and that's not right."

While Stevenson said there's no question thousands of officers are committed to public safety, the commitment has to be honored by creating more trust and accountability.

Stevenson also addressed last Thursday's ambush on Dallas police, where a gunman killed five officers and admitted to being upset about recent policing shootings. During police negotiations, the suspect said he wanted to kill people, particularly white officers.

"What happened to the police officers in Dallas is unquestionably horrific, and there will be no debate about the wrongfulness of that act. I grieve for those officers and their families," Stevenson said. "But there should also not be a debate about the wrongfulness of what happened in Baton Rouge and in Minnesota and in too many other places -- and there will be a debate."