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After Ferguson, St. Louis prosecutor tries to bring criminal justice reform

The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the unrest that has followed has again put the spotlight on how police officers are prosecuted and how the justice system addresses racial bias and inequality. Kimberly Gardner, the top prosecutor in St. Louis who is now up for reelection, sued the city this year to push for criminal justice reforms. Hari Sreenivasan spoke with her to learn more.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The unrest over the death of George Floyd again puts the spotlight on how police officers are prosecuted–and how the justice system does or does not address racial bias and inequality.

    In 2014 a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Two years later, the people of St. Louis overwhelmingly voted Kimberly Gardner to be the circuit attorney, the Chief State Prosecutor for that city.

    She's the first African-American to hold that position and has promised to both reform and rebuild trust in the criminal justice system among communities of color.

    She is also facing lawsuits and challenges in ongoing cases and is seeking reelection this summer.

    I spoke with her on Friday afternoon.

    Ms. Gardner, thanks for joining us. What goes through your mind as you see the protests in Minneapolis?

  • Kimberly Gardner:

    First of all, what goes through my mind is I want to send my sentiments out to the family, into the community. As a prosecutor, we're dealing with the racial inequities of the harm and the mistrust of the criminal justice system. And this is just another example of those inequities being displayed for the public.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    When you see the violence, the fires. What goes through your head?

  • Kimberly Gardner:

    What I see is a community hurting. What I see is the everyday slights that happen in communities around this country. When we deal with racial inequalities in the systemic issues that we always look at this these big instances of Mike Brown. We look at the what's happening in Minnesota with George Floyd.

    But what we don't look at as a prosecutor of those everyday slights that individuals who have mistrust with the criminal justice system, that people need law enforcement the most in these communities. They're frustrated and they're tired.

    Me as a prosecutor, I'm thinking about accountability and how do we root out individuals who cause harm to the community regardless of their occupation.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    How should a prosecutor balance out the needs to enforce the law. Working with police and the systemic shortcomings and inequalities that you're pointing to?

  • Kimberly Gardner:

    As a prosecutor, we have to be about addressing the root causes of the mistrust in the system. And that means holding everybody accountable. And that's what we have to do. So it's not about certain groups are being with, you know, whether we support law enforcement or not. We support justice and that's our job.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In the case of the Plain View Project, you were able to find police officers in their private time saying horrible things on social media. And I wonder when you were doing that, did you think, you know what? I've got these officers, maybe some other ones, will stop posting. Does that change how they feel towards people of color?

  • Kimberly Gardner:

    When you have a bias or animus against certain groups that you are supposed to protect and serve? We have to do our job to protect justice. And that means if we exclude those officers from testifying because they're not credible, because they show have shown a bias to certain groups.

    So when they bring that arrest, that arrest will be scrutinized differently or they have to be held accountable. And that's how we stop these these everyday slights that we're talking about. This is that systematic injustices. And that means we have to root out those bad actors in the community as well as on a police department.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Considering what's been happening in the past few weeks, whether it's the case of Mr. Aubrey or closer to home Ms.Taylor or now Mr. Floyd. What does all this signal to you?

  • Kimberly Gardner:

    This signals we have to do better, this signals we have to come together as people to address the systemic issues, the way we in this, in our community see these instances of violence against people who police should protect and serve.

    And we have to we have to really look at how we can root out the racial inequalities in law enforcement and the criminal justice system, and that's why it's imperative that we make sure we have people who are in these positions, whether you're law enforcement, whether you're a prosecutor, whether you're a judge, to recognize the historical issues with mistrust in the criminal justice system. And we have to correct that mistrust. We have to make the community, all communities, feel that they can call the police and feel safe.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Sadly, we've had this conversation before. We've talked about the need for criminal justice reform, we've talked about the needs for communities to come together. Why are we not solving this problem?

  • Kimberly Gardner:

    We have to address this in a way where we can be beyond lip service. And we have to have real action and we have real action. That's why a prosecutor like myself and other prosecutors around this country have been elected to look at how we can make the system fair and address those root causes of the mistrust in the criminal justice system.

    And we should stop rationalizing violence and hate against other people and communities that need police the most.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What do you see as the biggest challenge going forward?

  • Kimberly Gardner:

    You know, people really talking and having these tough conversations, but we have to have more than conversations.

    We're going to have action because this racial animus in this country is holding us back. We see that more than ever with this COVID-19 pandemic. How it's affecting black and brown communities more than any other community? Because of the health disparities, the same disparities are displayed in the criminal justice system.

    Ferguson was the ground zero of that conversation. And we're gonna continue to push and fight.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Kim Gardner, thanks so much.

  • Kimberly Gardner:

    Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

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