“My daddy changed the world.”
The words of 6-year-old Gianna Floyd recognize a nation that is demonstrating deep sorrow and a yearning for an end to police violence against Black Americans.
The killing of her father, George Floyd, has awakened a country that has long ignored Black America’s plea that it live up to its highest ideals, equal justice under law.
Like Gianna’s, my father’s bearlike hugs gave me comfort and made me believe that I could change the world. In moments of trial, he would say, “Don’t let the negatives get in your way.”
His support, along with that of my mother’s, led me to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and UNC School of Law. I went to law school because I always heard people say “You need a lawyer” when they needed help and I wanted to help. I believed that I could make a difference in people’s lives. I worked as an assistant prosecutor and a legal aid attorney. At the age of 29, and with the encouragement of important mentors, I became a district court judge.
For the next 30 years, I worked in our judicial system, becoming the first African-American woman to sit on the Supreme Court of North Carolina. I understand the problems we face in the application of justice, especially as they concern African-Americans and poor people, because I saw them almost every day. I also know the ability our justice system has to correct wrongs and protect rights because I saw that, too.
After I retired from the bench, President Barack Obama appointed me to the United States Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR), a body charged with making recommendations about issues of federal civil rights policy to the President and the United States Congress. During my term, we issued a report on modern policing that addressed use of force and the critical need to support police departments in developing the kind of training and conduct standards that would serve all of our communities well. A critical finding of the report exposed the lack of a centralized system to track data about excessive use of force, making reforms even more difficult.
Frustratingly, none of this information is new. The problems the USCCR found then are still with us today. “Without accurate data on police use of force, allegations by community members and actions by law enforcement not only sow distrust among communities and the police, making policing more dangerous, but also jeopardize public safety.”
What makes the burden on our communities heavier is not that this nation has been without solutions but without the will to act. The civil unrest witnessed in the past few weeks proves our country is ready to confront the inequities that plague our criminal justice system.
Our moment to reimagine the justice system is now.
We must chart a vision for public safety strategies that, yes, includes fair and constitutional policing, but also include strategies for responding to mental health incidents, managing homelessness and making investments in our public schools and after-school programs that can create pathways to sturdy communities.
This week the Congressional Black Caucus introduced a suite of legislation that would set a national standard on police use of force, expand pattern and practice investigations, ban “no knock” warrants and establish a national police misconduct registry, among other sweeping changes. The promising bill is a start to addressing some of the ills that plague our communities and make it challenging for police officers to raise red flags when they see patterns of wrongdoing.
With that said, the use of excessive force is really a symptom of larger problems in our society that have been exposed again during the lockdowns, protests and riots. We have a lot of work to do to address the wrongs of the past and move our country forward.
In Congress, I will do more to build safe and healthy communities. We can start by expanding the Affordable Care Act so that the disparities laid bare by COVID-19 are not allowed to worsen. It’s time we create new opportunities for small-business owners who are the leaders and stewards of our communities and often provide pathways that lead millions of Americans to the kind of social and economic prosperity that makes neighborhoods stronger.
I am running for Congress because voters can only choose from those who offer themselves for service. I believe this is our moment to change the world.
Patricia Timmons-Goodson is a candidate for Congress in North Carolina’s Eighth Congressional District. She is a former Obama appointee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights and was the first Black woman to serve as a North Carolina Supreme Court Justice.