Van Jones' Interview with Kerry Kennedy

The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights is a strategy center for documenting and exposing human rights violations in the United States—particularly those perpetuated by law enforcement. A project of the Center, Bay Area Police Watch has a hotline that opened in 1995 here in the San Francisco Bay area and in 1998 in New York City where people can call and report abuses. We designed a computer database, the first of its kind in the country, that allows us to track problem officers, problem precincts, problem practices, so at the click of a mouse we can now identify trouble spots and troublemakers. This has given us a tremendous advantage in trying to understand the scope and scale of the problem. Now, obviously, just because somebody calls and says, “Officer so-and-so did something to me,” doesn’t mean it actually happened, but if you get two, four, six phone calls about the same officer, then you begin to see a pattern. It gives you a chance to try and take affirmative steps.

We also try to expose abuse by doing a lot of public education. This is something we’ve really pioneered. Sometimes when people who suffered abuse at the hands of the police tried to engage the mainstream media, they would do it in a way that made them seem shrill, alarmist, or racially divisive. Instead, we thought it was important to interact intelligently with the media in a way that let them know that we were credible and interested in moving this issue forward in a responsible way.

Look, we get ten phone calls a day here from survivors of police misconduct and violence. Some of it is, “Officer so-and-so called me a boogerhead,” or something minor like that, but it also goes as far as wrongful death. We see the full gamut here. We try to spend half an hour to an hour with every person who calls. We have people who call because their children have come home with a broken arm or broken jaw or their teeth shattered or because the child has been held in jail for four or five days with no charges. What we do when people call is that we let them tell their story and then we write the story into the computer. We don’t try to rush them.

Then we tell them about their rights and their remedies. We tell them if you want to file a complaint with this officer in this municipality, here’s the number you call, here’s how to get the form to fill out, here’s the process. We tell them if you want to bring a lawsuit or file a claim of some sort for money damages, here’s what that process looks like.

If a caller has evidence of police brutality, then we have a couple dozen cooperating attorneys that we refer those cases to. Those attorneys rely on us to screen to a certain extent—to ask enough questions about the incidents so that if somebody calls and says, “Police Watch told me to call,” then they can be relatively confident that there’s at least something to work with here.

We started out in January 1995 at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. Even though police issues were not a part of their docket (they usually focus on employment, discrimination, and other issues), they saw a need.

That need became clear, after we had been doing this project for a while, in the Aaron Williams case. This was the African- American man who died in police custody. We had a really close relationship to the process. Sometimes you have to have a certain amount of professional distance, but this case was not like that at all. Here the family and Police Watch volunteers merged efforts and spent those two years literally arm-in