Public defenders are the nation’s greatest untapped resource in the conversation about the broken relationship between police and the communities they protect.
As public defenders represent upwards of 80 percent of all people arrested in every city and town in the country, they play a unique role in the justice system: combing through police-community interactions, looking for violations of the Constitution. Hundreds and thousands of police-community interactions. In every town, every day. Every car stop, every search of someone’s backpack, someone’s house. Every pat-down, every strip-search, every flashlight through the window, every click of the handcuffs, has to be assessed. Every “let me see what’s in your pockets,” every “you don’t mind if I look in your trunk?” every “stop, turn around, show me your hands” has to be scrutinized. It’s an enormous task, and it provides public defenders with more insight into police-community dynamics than any other group of experts in the country.
Well before Earl Warren was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, he was the District Attorney of Alameda County. There, in 1927, more than 35 years before his Court would grant every indigent defendant the right to counsel, he made it his mission to create a public defender’s office so that people who were arrested but who couldn’t afford a lawyer would have someone to defend them. He thought it was essential to the pursuit of truth and justice that his attorneys face strong opposition that could effectively challenge them. He understood that unchecked police power would necessarily lead to corruption and injustice.
Earl Warren has never been so right. Public defenders are the counterweight to the overgrown criminal justice system. Nothing could be more important now than investing in public defender offices and calling on public defenders to educate the police, the prosecutors, and their communities about what’s gone wrong.
When the levies needed repairing after Katrina, the nation called in the Army Corps of Engineers. When a design was needed to rebuild the World Trade Center, the world’s greatest architects were engaged. If communities are serious about learning what the police are doing in their neighborhoods, it’s time to call the public defenders.