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Former New Orleans Mayor On Police Reforms

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This morning on Capitol Hill, lawmakers and witnesses gathered along with more attending virtually to talk about policing in this country, how to do it better. Among the witnesses, former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial. He oversaw the reform of that city's police department in the 1990s and early 2000s. He used much of his time today to connect the current debate over police violence to our country's long history of racism. He went back to 1922, when the House tried to pass a bill making lynching a federal crime.

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MARC MORIAL: White supremacists in the United States Senate filibustered that bill and blocked 200 attempts to pass that bill, a blockage which continues to this day in the United States Senate.

KELLY: Marc Morial is currently president and CEO of the National Urban League, and he joins us now.

Marc Morial, welcome.

MORIAL: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

KELLY: Glad to have you with us. I want to dive right in on what has emerged as a key point of debate nationally and was certainly front and center during today's hearing - the issue of defunding the police, whether this is a good idea or not. Where do you stand on that right now?

MORIAL: Well, the - I think it's a slogan, but what it means to me is that we need to remake the police. We need to rethink American policing. Focus it on community-oriented policing. And we have to invest in things other than police in urban communities if we're going to address some of the systemic issues that we face. Policing alone will not make a city safe, will not make a neighborhood safe, will not make a community safe. And I believe that - you know, I don't accept a literal interpretation of what is a slogan. What I understand it as is something that moves that we need to rethink how we do policing and what we invest in in urban communities.

KELLY: Your organization, I know, supports the House bill. This is the bill that Democrats have advanced which includes a lot of things. It does not include defunding. And I want to play a little bit of a view. There was a moment in the hearing where you were making a very relevant point and making it passionately. Let me see if we can queue that up and listen.

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MORIAL: And just I'll say respectfully - bad family situation didn't kill George Floyd.

KELLY: What did you want lawmakers to understand in that moment?

MORIAL: There was a member who started the usual rhetoric that the problem with America's urban communities is broken families, irresponsible fathers, that type of - that line of rhetoric. And I thought it was important to say, that's not the problem we're here to deal with today. We're here because a man was killed on the streets of Minneapolis. He was asphyxiated because a man held his knee on his neck for over eight minutes. And it introduced a debate about policing in America. And it revealed some of the hard truths that had been ignored, that, you know, we've had over a thousand black people killed by the police since 2015. And large numbers of them or over 100 of them were unarmed. So this systemic issue has to be dealt with once and for all. And I am weary of the effort to divert. Some people say, well, what about black-on-black crime? What about this?

KELLY: Yeah.

MORIAL: That's not what this is about. This is about the history of police officers not being held accountable and the opportunity we frankly have, I think, at this moment because of the consensus that's emerged in the country to do something significant and really transformative about it.

KELLY: Well, let's go back to your direct experience here. When you were trying to overhaul the New Orleans Police Department back when you were mayor, what lesson did you learn from that that might feel most applicable in the current moment?

MORIAL: That you have to fix policing from top to bottom. You've got to fix the hiring system, the training system, how you deploy and what you emphasize. You've got to fix the disciplinary system so that you have a no-nonsense disciplinary system and that officers who don't make it, officers who cause problems, officers who violate the rules are going to be terminated. You've got to, if you will, think about how you deploy your resources. You've got to build relationships with the community. It was an overhaul that took the New Orleans Police Department from worst to first. Took it from a very broken agency, the one that earned national accreditation, and the - it's a systemic rebuilding of a police department or of an organization...

KELLY: Right.

MORIAL: ...And the efforts around the country. Now, every department may not have the same level of problems. But I think what people are saying now is, let's reimagine policing. So let me give you one example.

KELLY: Please.

MORIAL: One example is, maybe police should not be the ones - and I don't think they should be the ones to respond to situations of homelessness, in situations where people have mental health issues. Maybe you need another element, another department of government, a city government, to be able to do that. So those are the types of reforms I think that people are thinking about amongst many, many others.

KELLY: We are nearly out of time, so I'll ask you to give me a yes or no answer or maybe one sentence. As you sat...

MORIAL: (Laughter) If I can.

KELLY: ...And listened to all the questions and the testimony today, do you feel hopeful that we will emerge from this with policing in a better place nationally?

MORIAL: I'm hopeful. I'm hopeful. I believe we do have a historic opportunity. I think it's going to require continued pushing, continued advocacy.

KELLY: Right.

MORIAL: But I think people need to hear, and our lawmakers...

KELLY: OK.

MORIAL: ...Need to hear, that people in America are crying out for change.

KELLY: That is former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, now president and CEO of the National Urban League.

Thank you.

MORIAL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.