Last Saturday, a crowd of about 700 packed the Hilton Hotel’s Grand Central Ballroom at 10th and Cass to honor Chief Standing Bear and the landmark court decision made in 1879 by Omaha judge Elmer Dundy, recognizing Standing Bear and Native Americans in general as “persons” before the law. Among those in attendance were Omaha mayor Jim Suttle and Nebraska U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, who both issued proclamations honoring Standing Bear in Omaha and Nebraska respectively.

This was the first time the Standing Bear Breakfast was held in Omaha (other years it was held in Lincoln). The breakfast coincided the conclusion of the 24th Annual Conference of the National Consortium on Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Courts, which was also held in Omaha for the first time. Liz Neeley, who serves on the board of directors of the Consortium, said she was happy to have the conference in Omaha because the conferences have primarily been held on the east or west coast.

“Historically, the East Coast and West Coast have been the first to address these issues (of fairness in the courts),” Neeley said.

For two days, topics like bilingual interrogations, perceived racial bias, and the courts handling of refugees were addressed. Susan Berk-Seligson, professor of Linguistics in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Vanderbilt University, hosted a forum titled “Coerced Confessions: The Discourse of Bilingual Police Interrogations”, which drew off her 2009 book of the same name.

Berk-Seligson used case studies of persons accused of murder, rape, molestation, and kidnapping. In some of the cases she referenced, police had little to no knowledge of the Spanish language, or the arrestee spoke little or no English. In the past 20 years, police departments in small midwestern towns and some southeastern cities have dealt with sharp increases of Spanish-speaking people, but haven’t been able to provide adequate interpreters, Berk-Seligson said in a phone interview from her home in Nashville, Tennessee.

“The police departments are not prepared to meet the needs of the demographically shifting population,” Berk-Seligson said.

“Police have been forced to take these crash courses (in Spanish). Some courses are a semester long, some are only 30 hours,” she said.

She compared the training some police departments give their officers to receiving a year’s worth of high school Spanish. After a year of schooling at that level, people still do not have the necessary Spanish skills to adequately handle a routine arrest, let alone a full interrogation, Berk-Seligson said.

In other cases, Berk-Seligson argues it’s sometimes just as detrimental if the officer is fluently bilingual because the officer could use their understanding of the language to coerce a confession out of the accused. In one case Berk-Seligson cited, an officer who spoke fluent Spanish did not speak to the arrestee in Spanish during the interrogation.

“The police have some inherent biases,” Berk-Seligson said.

“They often will try to coerce a confession to get a conviction.”

The solution to the language gap problem in arrests and confessions is not more Spanish-speaking officers, Berk-Seligson argues, but more independent interpreters. The main reason is that certified translators are ethically bound to be unbiased. The task of serving as interrogator and interpreter should not fall to one person, Berk-Seligson said.

“It’s really impossible,” she said.

Jeffrey Rachlinski, professor at Cornell Law School, was scheduled to give a talk titled “Implicit Bias and the Justice System.” However, due to a family illness, he was unable to attend. Rachlinski co-authored a paper published in the Notre Dame Law Review titled “Does Unconscious Race Affect Trial Judges?”, where he argued that while trial judges make concerted efforts to be unbiased, when given negative subliminal messages associated with African-Americans, the results indicated judges gave stricter sentences for the African-American defendant.

In a phone interview, Rachlinski said the trial judges (one-third surveyed were African Americans) were given cases where the race of the defendant was explicitly identified. In those cases, the sentences given to white defendants were the same as those given to African-Americans.

The same judges were then told to stare at the center of a screen while certain words oftentimes associated with African-Americans were subliminally flashed without the judge’s knowledge. The judge was then given a misdemeanor case involving a 14-year-old who stole a video game. In the situations where the African-American associated words were flashed before the case was presented, the sentences given by the judges were more severe than when the words were not displayed.

In a similar test, judges were given an image of a white person along with a positive word. They were also given an image of an African-American person and a negative word. Later in the test, the negative words and races were reversed (with negative words displayed with a white person and positive words for an African-American person). The study showed an almost 80 percent quicker response rate for judges who identify “good” words with whites than African-Americans.

“When they’re (judges) hurried, that’s when we worried that judges may rely on these stereotypes,” Rachlinski said.

One of the most often-debated claims of prejudice in the courts is mandatory minimum sentencing, where judges are forced to apply a certain sentence for a crime. Rachlinski said at its worst, racial bias can be applied to minimum sentencing because legislatures can pick out certain crimes to levee punishments (for example, the disparity of sentencing for possession of cocaine as opposed to possession of crack cocaine). However, not having a set minimum or maximum guideline can also have a detrimental effect, allowing a judge’s possible bias to play a role in sentencing (either explicitly or implicitly). The best approach, Rachlinski argues, is for a crime to have a maximum and minimum sentence and for the judge to justify the decision.

“Forcing people to explain themselves is the best way to combat racial bias,” Rachlinski said.

Yesterday was Election Day, and there have been reports of voters having difficulty accessing their polling places. If you have a story about running intro trouble when voting or not being allowed to vote, report it to Nebraskans for Civic Reform and Nebraska Appleseed here.

Leave a comment