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Abstract

For over thirty years, I have worked in the criminal justice world, representing people in several of America’s poorest congressional districts. As the Founder and Executive Director of The Bronx Defenders, a holistic public defender office in the South Bronx that serves over 30,000 of the lowest-income residents in America every year, I thought I had a clear view of over-policing and the rapidly fraying bond between police and the poor communities of color they patrol. I didn’t. Last year, I became embroiled in a controversy that both deepened my own understanding of the problem and inexorably brought me closer to those my office represents. The controversy concerned my office’s participation in a hip-hop video that became a flashpoint in the conversation about policing and racial justice. My experience at the center of the ensuing maelstrom taught me several valuable lessons: about the power of the “hero cop” narrative that pervades the United States today, about the fragility of the defense function, and about the profound racial fears that still suffuse the American experiment. And just as importantly, after more than thirty years in the criminal justice system, the experience gave me a long-overdue taste of what it might feel like to be a client—targeted by the raw, angry power of the New York City Police Department. This paper will argue two things: first, that until we begin to challenge and ultimately unravel the false narrative of heroic police officers engaged in a dangerous war against its own citizenry, specifically men of color, we will never be able to substantially advance the causes of social and racial justice in this country; and second, that the nature of holistic defense profoundly deepens attorney-client relationships, fundamentally entangling lawyers in the struggles of client communities. Challenging the hero cop narrative can come at great cost. It is a profoundly powerful worldview, and threats to it are met with extraordinary hostility.

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