By Robert Reives II
Recent events have made all of us rethink race relations in our country. Most people want to see a true and substantive change.
When asked my perspective on this I have to say that none of the change is going to be easy. The change has to happen in all aspects of our lives and the change must have context. Change requires a strong acknowledgement of our history, an honest discussion about where we are presently, and a concrete vision of what we want our future to look like. That is far from easy because it requires uncomfortable conversations about subjects we would rather not discuss. But if we are serious about our change, these conversations need to happen. We need to alter our approaches to every part of education, health care, environmental justice, and economic empowerment just to name a few. The most obvious place to start, though, is with our criminal justice system.
For almost five years I worked as a prosecutor in the Eleventh District (Lee, Harnett and Johnston counties). The time I spent at this office was invaluable. I was truly lucky to work for an elected district attorney that was incredibly progressive for that time period in the area of race relations. Thomas Lock (now a Superior Court judge) not only made sure that he had a diverse staff, but he empowered that staff in ways rarely seen even today.
When I joined that office, I joined an office that looked like my community and an office that allowed for decisions that bettered my community. Judge Lock (who we all called Tom at the time) did not feel he was doing anyone a favor when he hired minorities but felt that he was making his office better with differing thought processes and viewpoints. He encouraged innovation and did not judge us based on how many people we could put in jail. He wanted us to figure out ways to approach problems that reduced recidivism and gave people faith and confidence in the system.
While in the office, we were allowed discretion, and discretion is incredibly important for a prosecutor. People do not fit into slots. People need to be heard — victims and accused. Some of the most rewarding cases I had were cases that did not end in a prosecution. Cases where all of us worked together, officers who knew the community, victims who knew the accused, defense attorneys who cared deeply about helping their clients, to achieve our goals.
It meant a lot to African American victims of crime to come in and see faces that looked like theirs. They felt they would be heard. Just the same, it meant something to African American defendants to know they would be listened to. They did not want favor, just fairness. Our judicial system is there first and foremost of course to protect us but immediately following that the most important role is to make sure all people have faith in the system.
One of the best examples I remember is listening to one of our senior prosecutors after a big drug bust. He got a call while I was in his office from an elected official about one of the teenagers caught in the drug bust and how the teenager deserved better treatment than others. The response stayed with me: “If I give him a break then every other kid in this bust gets the same break.”
That discretion also provided the opportunity to weed out bad officers. Luckily, these were rare during my time, but when they happened, we did not turn a blind eye. The one thing I learned is that most officers do not want a bad officer around anymore than we want bad coworkers. If we had cases that did not need to be prosecuted because of an officer’s mistreatment of people of color, we could always depend on other officers to give us the heads up.
These officers served on diverse police forces and did not want these bad apples eroding their reputations. Because this was their community too. And just as we depended on these officers to help us eliminate racism in their departments, we all depend on each of you to help us eliminate racism in our communities.
I am thankful for the lessons I learned in the district attorney’s office. Just as we had the power to imprison, we had the power to give second chances. Both are equally important.
How the system treats you should not be based on your color, background, economic status, or address. I am happy to see a lot of those second chance teenagers grow into productive community members today, many with teenagers of their own now.
I am happy to see many of the African American staff members I had the chance to serve with go on to have incredible careers doing a multitude of jobs. I am happy that my first exposure to the judicial system showed me that diversity works, and that looking out for people who are not like you is a good thing.
Finally, I am lucky to have been in an office with people and to serve with law enforcement officers and officials that understood, it’s not enough just to not be racist, but you have to be actively anti-racist.
It is imperative that you decide for yourself that you will not tolerate racism in any form, actively or passively, at any level. That instead of continuing to give racism safe harbor in your life, you should give good people safe harbor. Most people want to do the right thing, but it is up to us to foster an environment that allows them to do that.
Robert Reives II is the deputy Democratic leader in the North Carolina House of Representatives, representing District 54. Reives, an attorney who has worked in both prosecution and criminal defense, was born and raised in Sanford. He represented portions of Lee County in the legislature from 2014 to 2018, when his district was redrawn to cover Chatham County and portions of Durham County.