As we witnessed the surrealism of the recent cases of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, we can unanimously agree that death by law enforcement has been prevalent for way too long and the time for reform is now.
The question is how much longer will “now” take?
Inside Edition recently chronicled the surrounding details that led up to the 2012 homicide of Shereese Francis, who was killed in her home at the hands of four officers of the NYPD. Her best friend, Sunshine Smith-Williams, along with Francis’ sister and other supporters, has been working tirelessly for the past eight years to get justice and to bring reform–especially at the legislative level.
Smith-Williams, a serial entrepreneur, philanthropist, youth advocate, public speaker, film producer, and author, says there has been no progress to fix the broken policing system in America. The judicial and American policing system are built off systemic racism because the system was created from an oppressed foundation itself.
“Police officers are supposed to protect and serve. The officers who arrived at my friend’s home entered aggressively, unqualified and untrained to respond to an emotionally disturbed call that should have been handled by a mental health professional. She screamed that she couldn’t breathe just as the late Eric Garner did before he was murdered,” Smith-Williams says.
This pursuit of justice came with a few obstacles and setbacks, such as having no access to view the disciplinary history of the four officers who perpetrated the homicide. The Repeal of 50-A passed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo now allows the public to look at disciplinary conduct of police officers. Knowing who these officers were can show the Queens District Attorney that the aggressive behavior may not have been an outlier.
The old adage says “nothing changes, if nothing changes.” The repeal of 50-A, the public murder of George Floyd, and a promise made to the Francis family pushed Smith-Williams to publicly speak out and use her voice as a champion for change. She decided to take action by going after policy changes and wrote a police reform bill, “The Shereese Francis Act.” This bill has been submitted to longtime Queens resident and New York City Council Member Adrienne E. Adams, who confirmed that she is backing the bill.
Smith-Williams shares advice on how someone can start to seek justice if facing a similar situation:
- Seek a civil rights attorney who is willing to get in the trenches and fight for you and with you during this painful ordeal. Please know that proving injustice requires a qualified legal expert. Your attorney must be passionate and knowledgeable of civil rights and policing policies.
- Establish relationships within your community. You want to seek justice in legislation then start voting! Are you registered to vote? Voting is your voice, not just for the next sitting president but for your local candidates such as your mayor, district attorney, attorney general, and council members.
- Make sure you are actively engaged in your community. Create interactive programs that bridge the gap with community and police. “When visiting my old community or doing community and youth events, I’d like to see more officers that look like me policing my area,” Smith Williams says. “My community-based organization, Investing In Us, has relationships with community leaders, activists, and community affairs from the local precinct. Having recently graduated with a certification in Family Engagement In Education from Harvard, my professor drilled in that advocating for change really starts at home and the community. The more we’re involved, the more we’ll evolve!”
Finally, Smith-Williams has a few solutions on how we can implement effective police reform within our communities.
- “I’d reject overly aggressive policing tactics, like “stop and frisk” or those typically employed by police anti-gang units that involve contacting, stopping, searching, and surveilling large numbers of people,” she says.
- To avoid access issues, establish independent community oversight bodies, with full access to police records, subpoena power, authority to conduct investigations, and the power to discipline officers and command staff.
- It all starts with community and prioritizing social services and community development in impoverished neighborhoods over funding the police.
- “Our communities need help,” Smith-Williams concludes. “Let’s provide sufficient community-based voluntary drug treatment and harm reduction services, instead of policing drug use. In White communities, they treat drug use like an illness. Our communities need the same approach and consideration. Shereese was murdered because officers used excessive force and did not follow police policy of answering EDP (Emotionally Disturbed Persons) calls. Therefore, it’s imperative to maintain effective, supportive, and voluntary mental health services in the community, instead of responding to mental health issues with policing.”