U.S. Senator’s Chilling Experience Reminds Us Why Criminal Justice Reform is Not Negotiable

A sitting U.S. Senator was questioned by the police inside Congress just because he was black.

Days before Congress packed up and headed home for summer vacation, Republican Senator Tim Scott from South Carolina gave a series of speeches on the Senate floor. Billed as a family conversation, Scott called for an open dialogue over the deep wounds afflicting the American family.

One speech lauded the peaceful efforts of police in the face of protests over police brutality. While the vast majority of law enforcement officers seek to protect American citizens, there are still problems as he highlighted in his second speech. His third conversation focused on bi-partisan solutions to address these challenges: top-down solutions from Washington and bottom-up answers that start with getting officers embedded in communities once again.

It was in his second speech that he shared head-shaking stories. After recounting his personal run-ins with law enforcement, we are left with undeniable evidence that something is wrong with some police and some policing practices.

Scott revealed that as an elected official, he had been stopped seven times over the course of one year in most cases for issues that were trivial. For example, a trip to Outback Steakhouse became a brush with the law because an officer (for no alleged reason) pulled him over suspecting his vehicle may have been stolen. In Scott’s mind were questions like: Is the license plate coming in as stolen? Does the license plate match the car? Yet, he was not given one.

Scott holds membership in one of the most elite clubs in the nation, the U.S. Senate. With just 100 members (each elected by millions of constituents) you wouldn’t expect him to have run-ins with police just walking into the doors of Congress each day. As a chilling experience with a Capitol Police officer demonstrated, even titles don’t matter:

For those who don’t know, there are a few ways to identify a member of Congress or Senate. Well, typically when you’ve been here for a couple of years, the law enforcement officers get to know your face and they just identify you by face. But if that doesn’t happen, you have a badge or your license that you can show them, that shows you’re a Senator. Or, this really cool pin. I often times say that the House pins are larger because our egos are bigger, so we need a smaller pin. So it’s easy to identify a U.S. Senator by our pin.

I recall walking into an office building just last year after being here for five years on the Capitol. And the officer looked at me with a little attitude and said, “The pin I know, you I don’t, show me your ID.”

I’ll tell you, I was thinking to myself either he thinks I’m committing a crime, impersonating a member of Congress, or what?

It wasn’t long before the officer’s supervisor called Senator Scott to apologize for the officer’s action. That was not the first such apology he had received from Capitol Police, and it likely won’t be the last.

This is a phenomenon that appears to afflict black youth more than any other demographic and is contributing to the over-incarceration epidemic among communities of color. According to data, young Blacks face 26 percent of juvenile arrests and 58 percent of the youth admitted to state prisons. African Americans constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population. Young people overall are disproportionately affected by our broken criminal justice system.

Scott underscored that there is a level of frustration and a loss of dignity that accompanies being questioned by police while going about your business and daily life. However, for many young people who aren’t public officials or who don’t have someone vouching for them, being stopped by an officer can eventually lead to a loss of opportunity and freedom.

Policy-solutions and people-solutions can drive changes needed in our criminal justice system. All American family members must sit down to listen to the problems and solutions. Until then, reform will not come to our justice system to restore the trust lost between law enforcement and communities.

Author Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee is the National Spokesperson for Generation Opportunity.

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