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'Black America's Attorney General' Represents Families Of People Killed By Police

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: Criminal convictions are not common when it comes to police-involved killings, but settlements between the families of victims and city police departments are. Attorney Benjamin Crump currently represents George Floyd's family.

BENJAMIN CRUMP: They are very anxious, as one might expect. The fact that they can only have one family member in the courtroom at a time because of COVID concerns, it's very difficult for them because you want another family member to be able to lean on, to have an emotional support.

CORNISH: Crump has also represented the families of Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and many, many others. When we spoke earlier today, I asked Crump if he believes that at this point, civil settlements beyond the legal redress to families of victims really do much of anything to mitigate the problem of police killings.

CRUMP: I think yes and no. In many ways, those settlements and those verdicts where they have to pay make them rethink that. So they have abolished no-knock warrants now. In George Floyd's case, I think they're going to be held accountable civilly as well as criminally. And in a civil matter, I believe Minneapolis is going to abolish chokeholds, which...

CORNISH: But do you mind finishing that point? So you're essentially saying that it's not just about the families. You think civil suits have a role here?

CRUMP: Oh, absolutely. I think we are a capitalistic society, and the more these city governments have to take their budget as compensation to these families in these 1983 wrongful death civil rights cases, the more they're going to make changes so they don't have to keep paying out money. Now, that's the yes part of it. The no part of that answer is this. The fact that George Floyd was supposed to be a tipping point on May 25, 2020 after they killed him. But six months after George Floyd was killed up until the beginning of this year in January, there were another 130 Black people killed by police.

CORNISH: Do you look back at any of your cases and see threads in them that set a precedent for current cases or has each one of them been uniquely different?

CRUMP: Well, I think each of them are unique, but there are common threads. I think, you know, we're starting to see a turn. It's a journey to justice. You know, you take two steps forward, then you sometimes take a step back.

But Corey Jones, two years ago - that was a young drummer who was brought down on the side of the street. And a undercover police officer came in a cargo van, jeans and T-shirt and shot and killed him and tried to make it seem as if he had to do it because he was in fear of his life. The officer ended up being charged, and an all-white jury in Palm Beach, Fla., came back and convicted him, which marked the first time in 30 years in the state of Florida that a police officer had been convicted of killing a Black person. We just have to keep fighting.

CORNISH: Benjamin Crump, you know, the first time I encountered you was in the Panama City, Fla., case of Martin Anderson, who was the young man who was killed after being beaten by deputies at a juvenile boot camp. And he would have turned 30 years old.

CRUMP: Yeah.

CORNISH: You're shaking your head remembering that case.

CRUMP: It's so tragic. Martin Anderson's case was Trayvon Martin before Trayvon Martin. But that young boy was kicked, punched, suffocated on that video surveillance. And even though we got the largest amount ever paid out by the state of Florida for a individual wrongful death, not one of those eight guards who kicked him and punched him and put ammonia tablets up his nose were convicted. And in fact, the all-white jury in Panama City only stayed up for an hour and a half and said that, you know, it was justified that this 14-year-old child would have nobody held accountable for killing him.

CORNISH: Looking back at that case, as you said, while there was a financial settlement in it and the state of Florida ended up getting rid of those juvenile boot camps altogether - they're banned - there was no conviction for the deputies who were involved. Does it feel like there has been progress since then?

CRUMP: No, there has been progress. We have to remember it's just been in the last 30 years where Black people even got civil compensation for the police killing us. I mean, they used to just kill us and nothing, no form of justice. So George Floyd and, like, Breonna Taylor and so many others, has an opportunity to get full justice, to get a civil resolution in the civil courts, but also a chance to get criminal justice because he was indicted and charged.

CORNISH: At this point, what would you consider progress, so to speak? I mean, is there an actual benchmark? Is there something that you would look for to say, my work has become meaningful?

CRUMP: It's quite straightforward. Progress would be justice. And justice is not to be confused with accountability. The only thing George Floyd can get is accountability. Breonna can only get accountability. You know, Ahmaud Arbery can only get accountability. Because the reality is justice will be done still here with us living.

That we don't have these hashtags that become household names, the few that do become household names - because we have to remember, there were 1,300 people on average killed by police in America. And out of those 1,300, we really only come to know four or five of the high-profile names each year. Can you imagine the other families who nobody ever talks about, how that must make them feel about the value of their loved one?

CORNISH: Well, Benjamin Crump, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today.

CRUMP: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: That's attorney Benjamin Crump.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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