Monday, September 17, 2007

Speaking to Police Officers

Do all members of law enforcement support the death penalty? Interestingly, the National Black Police Association (NBPA) has officially opposed the death penalty since 1986, and for the past three years they’ve invited MVFHR board member Bonnita Spikes to present at their annual conference.

After Bonnita’s first presentation in 2005, NBPA director Ron Hampton told us that they had wanted to have a victim’s family member speak at the conference “to train and educate people about the truth of the death penalty.” He also said that one of the NBPA’s goals is “to evaluate the criminal justice system and its negative impact on communities of color, and we see the death penalty as part of that.” Apparently, the evaluations after Bonnita’s first presentation showed that some members of law enforcement who were in favor of the death penalty coming in to the presentation changed their minds by the time they left.

Bonnita says she’s definitely seen a positive shift in the audience’s responses over the years: “Three years ago I can remember a lot of people saying, basically, ‘I’m sorry for your loss, but you’re crazy. Anyone who commits a heinous crime has to die.’ This year, there weren’t as many angry responses, and people seemed more interested in following up and getting more information.”

Bonnita starts her presentations by explaining that her husband Michael was killed in a convenience store robbery. “I say I’m going to tell you a little bit about myself and what I do, and then I talk about working with Maryland Citizens Against State Executions and Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights. I say, “We’re not the only family members of murder victims who are opposed to the death penalty, but a lot of people don’t know that there is anyone else, they don’t know that groups exist.’ I tell some of our other members’ stories and say we come from all walks of life.”

Last year, the conference was held in the United Kingdom (the NBPA has affiliate groups in Canada and the U.K.). “Speaking there was a fascinating experience,” says Bonnita. “I think the responses from the U.K. members helped contribute to the shift that I saw among the U.S. members this year. No one from law enforcement in countries outside the U.S. was saying we need the death penalty or the death penalty helps to fight crime. They thought it was wonderful that an organization like MVFHR exists, and they said so publicly.”

This year, the conference was held in Florida, and Bonnita presented together with Shari Silberstein of Equal Justice USA. Bonnita says that the group seemed quite interested to hear from Shari about the moratorium effort in Maryland and nationwide: “The idea of a moratorium gives them something to think about, a kind of middle ground where they can say maybe it’s too flawed to fix.”

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