After Ferguson

How NBA president Pamela Meanes helped wage war on police brutality

Published in 2017 Missouri & Kansas Super Lawyers — November 2017

On Aug. 9, 2014, Pamela Meanes—who had been sworn in as president of the National Bar Association, the largest predominantly African-American bar in the country, 10 days earlier—received a call from a colleague while she was visiting Boston. “Have you heard what’s happening in St. Louis?” he asked. “A young man named Mike Brown got shot. They left his body in the streets. The National Bar Association needs to get something out.”

“Not only was this happening during my presidency,” Meanes says, “but it was in my own backyard.”

But Meanes was already on the case. A few weeks earlier, her soon-to-be communications director wanted to talk about the case of Eric Garner, who, in July, had been killed by a law-enforcement officer’s chokehold in Staten Island, all the while repeating “I can’t breathe.” Meanes isn’t a civil rights attorney; but, she said, “I was ready to wage war on police brutality.”

Knowing the Justice Department needed evidence of pattern and practice, she put together a task force to gather data to identify the 25 worst states for alleged police brutality—the NBA’s first attempt at such a national project, she says. 

She had other agenda items, too: education, voter protection and judicial equality. “But once Ferguson happened,” she says, “it became imperative I focus on police brutality. It was tragic, but also felt ordained and divined, that we had been building this thing.”

A mother of seven, Meanes says Ferguson felt personal. 

“At one of the first big forums that we did for Michael Brown, I was sitting in this room, as a native of east St. Louis,” she says. “I see all of these great leaders, but sitting in the corner, I see Lesley [McSpadden] and Mike Brown [Sr.], with tears running down their faces. At that moment, I wasn’t the NBA president. I was the mother of a 14-year-old African-American male who is as dark as the day is light. I didn’t want to see my son laying in the street.”

The NBA pushed for legislation on the local, state and federal levels. On the local level, that meant stricter adherence of mental-health testing, and detailed and thorough diversity and de-escalation of force training. State-level initiatives called for an independent police-investigation group and a prosecuting body for cases involving police misconduct. On the federal level, the NBA pushed for mandatory body-cam programs with tampering penalties, succinct definition and training for escalation of force, and the establishment of a felony brutality charge—which makes it a crime for an officer to watch another officer engage in misconduct and not act.

She feels many of these initiatives are way past due. “In 2014, USA Today reported that ... nearly twice a week in America, from 2005 to 2012, a white police officer killed a black person.”

She also points to The National Police Misconduct Reporting Project, which identified 4,861 unique reports of misconduct, involving 6,613 officers, in just a two-year timeframe: 2009–2010. Only 33 percent of the reports resulted in a conviction; only 12 percent resulted in prison time. 

“The conviction rate is so bad because the law is flawed,” she says. “In 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court opined in Tennessee V. Garner that if an officer ‘had probable cause to believe that the suspect posed a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others, he or she could use deadly force,’” she says. “Translation: If an officer ‘believes’ a life is in danger, he/she may use that measure of force that he/she ‘believes’ is reasonable. The operative word is “believe,” which requires judge and jurors to apply a subjective standard. That’s the law of the land.”

On the plus side, many states, including Texas, Arizona, Illinois, Florida, Missouri, North Carolina and Tennessee, introduced versions of the NBA’s independent prosecution/investigation legislation in 2014.

“I’m very proud of [that],” says Meanes, whose presidency ended in 2015. “We just want to see change.”

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