Jamal Simmons: My case shows how easily a wrongful arrest can happen

Jamal Simmons: My case shows how easily a wrongful arrest can happen
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I never should have been charged with a crime in Atlanta, but I was. 

Two of my friends exited the home of a suspected marijuana dealer and our car was pulled over once we turned the corner onto another street. Blue lights filled the rearview mirror. 

The cops took us from the car, one by one, to be searched and questioned. They couldn’t find any drugs but it was clear the driver had been drinking. Much like the video of the two (now former) Atlanta police officers and Rayshard Brooks in the Wendy’s parking lot, they were fairly polite for most of the interaction. I thought the driver would get pinched for drunk driving but the rest of us might be let go. 

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Then they searched the vehicle and found a .22-caliber pistol left in a backseat compartment. I remember an officer shouted out “Gun!” All polite pretenses stopped. We were pushed to the ground. My face was smashed against the concrete street, arms behind my back. 

To this day, I don’t know why my roommate had a gun. He had a license to own it but not a permit to carry it, and he admitted it was his at the scene. The police could have let the rest of us go. They could have taken us all in for questioning while they verified his story. Instead, they charged all four of us with carrying a concealed weapon and took us to jail. I was 19 years old. 

A few weeks later, all of us appeared before a judge who read the charges from the bench and asked if anyone was there from the Atlanta Police Department. “I’d like you to explain to me,” he asked the officer, “how four individuals could carry one weapon?” 

Again, my roommate admitted it was his gun. The judge dismissed the case against the other three of us immediately. It was over in less than five minutes but the shadow has lingered my entire life. I have been questioned about it twice by the U.S. Secret Service on political campaigns and once when getting a government security clearance. 

My case was simple and it only cost me one night in jail, a few hundred dollars in legal fees, and some uncomfortable conversations with government agents. But for far too many African Americans, nights like that end with criminal records, fees that can’t be paid, or even death. 

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We know the names. 

Eric Garner was choked to death after supposedly selling loose cigarettes. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was shot while playing with a toy gun in a park. Sandra Bland was found dead in her cell after an arrest for a traffic stop. Breonna Taylor was killed in a botched police raid. George Floyd was suspected of passing a counterfeit $20 bill and ended up dead on the street from a policeman’s knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes. And Rayshard Brooks, from the Atlanta Wendy’s, was killed after the police decided to arrest him for being drunk and he fought back. 

I asked former Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee, now chief of police for Detroit City Schools,  how we could fix this. Godbee supports many of the goals of the “Defund the Police” movement and preventing so much officer interaction with citizens. One place to start? Remove the financial incentives for making arrests like mine. Godbee said many officers are paid extra for showing up in court, which can “incentivize the amount of enforcement” they do. 

The former chief focused on mental health, too. When police are called, he said, they focus on enforcement, not on securing health care. That suggests those calls for more social workers are appropriate. Also, Godbee recommends regular mental health screenings for all police officers. He told me he was screened when he joined the department at 19 and never again for 30 years. After retirement, and dealing with problems of his own, he said he was diagnosed with PTSD and mild depression. 

Godbee also wants to limit the pretexts for stopping citizens. He points out that counterfeiting — as in the Floyd case — is a nonviolent federal crime that doesn’t fall under local jurisdiction. If the police could identify the suspect, they could easily issue a “not-in-custody warrant,” make a report and refer it to the Secret Service, which handles such matters. “If we could watch a murder happen and a not-in-custody warrant is appropriate … then for non-violent crimes, why don’t we” do the same, he asks. 

There are lots of other suggestions for improving policing — but Godbee’s ideas are a good place to start. Electing more judges such as the one who threw out my case is another. We need more serious people willing to acknowledge the flaws in the criminal justice system and collaborate on solutions so fewer citizens lose their lives and livelihoods because of one mistake.

Jamal Simmons is a Democratic campaign strategist, CBS News analyst and hosts #ThisisFYI on Instagram and Facebook. Follow him on Twitter @JamalSimmons.