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NAACP's Sherrilyn Ifill: Lawyers must step up in cop-shootings crisis

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Sherrilyn Ifill

Sherrilyn Ifill. Photograph by Tony Avelar

The seemingly constant stream of new videos and other reports of African-Americans being shot by police under questionable circumstances is creating a crisis of confidence in the rule of law, said Sherrilyn Ifill at a luncheon gathering for the Pro Bono Publico Awards.

“When large segments of the population no longer believe in the integrity and legitimacy of the rule of law, it is a threat to our democracy,” said Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, in her keynote address.

Ifill said she leads an organization that worked to end segregation and to secure full rights for all. But “this is a moment where people like me will start to have no credibility with people who I have devoted my life to represent.”

In this moment of crisis, lawyers should be leaders and work for solutions, Ifill said.

“We’re compelled not only to use our time and skills to step up our pro bono commitment, but it’s time we start shaming our friends who aren’t stepping up.”

moving forward

Ifill provided a story about her first exposure in developing an understanding of law enforcement and the relationship with the black community.

When she was 10 years old growing up in New York City, two police officers got out of their car and started chasing a man and his 10-year-old son who were out walking on a Saturday morning. An officer shot and killed the boy and said he thought the father and son were robbery suspects. Although it was more than 40 years ago, Ifill remembers details such as the image of the New York Daily News on a table at home with a story about the shooting; and she remembered the officer’slast name.

The officer was indicted and then acquitted by a jury that had only one black member.

“The point of the story is these issues have been going on for a very long time,” Ifill said. Black people were not believed when they described such incidents. But now there are videos, “and you can’t avoid the truth.”

Two law firms and three individuals received Pro Bono Publico Awards:

  • Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, whose U.S.-based lawyers dedicated more than 63,000 hours to pro bono matters in 2015.
  • Katten Muchin Rosenman, which established the Katten Legal Clinic at José de Diego Community Academy, the first legal clinic located in a Chicago public school.
  • John O. Goss, a lawyer at Goss & Fentress in Norfolk, Virginia, who worked to represent claimants in eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia who were abruptly terminated from the Social Security disability program.
  • Renee M. Schoenberg, a senior counsel at DLA Piper in Chicago who secured tax-exempt status for the “low bono” DC Affordable Law Firm.
  • Hillary Gaston Walsh, a lawyer based in South Korea who has taken on several asylum cases and appeals.

This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “NAACP’s Ifill: Lawyers must step up in cop-shootings crisis.”

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