“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” — Martin Luther King Jr.
During law school I had the opportunity to work for a judge in Findlay, Ohio. He was a wonderful mentor. Fair and even-tempered, he truly cared about everyone that came into his courtroom. I would describe him as the epitome of justice in the most idealistic sense.
I spent many days in his courtroom, gazing at the historic beauty of the courthouse and soaking in all I could. One day I noticed something that gave me pause. I realized that the painting directly behind my mentor was missing something, perhaps the most important thing. The painting was of Lady Justice, but she was not wearing her blindfold. This seemed in sharp contrast to my mentor, and all I’d grown to be passionate about. You see, I knew then that I wanted to fight against injustice, and I believed then as I do now, that being a prosecutor was one way to do that.
Lady Justice is a well-known symbol of our justice system. She proudly holds scales, which represent the weighing of evidence on its own merit. There is a snake at her feet that represents evil, and a book that represents the Constitution from which our justice system was born. She also holds a sword to represent punishment. The sword is always lower than the scales because punishment can only happen after evidence is weighed. Then there’s the blindfold. Lady Justice is always wearing her blindfold (or she’s supposed to be, at least). The blindfold represents our justice system being blind to a person’s wealth, power, gender and race.
As events have unfolded surrounding the killing of George Floyd, I’ve thought about that painting quite a bit. Justice should always wear its blindfold, but similar to that painting, we are naïve to think it always does. There is injustice and there is racism within our justice system, but the efforts of communities lately inspire me that one day Lady Justice will wear her blindfold all the time. It will take community partners and conversations about reforms that can be made to ensure racism is eradicated at all levels of our justice system, beginning with arrests, to prosecutions, the weighing of evidence, and final judgment.
As I sit here writing this, I’m dismayed that these conversations must still occur in 2020, but I’m also hopeful for the future. I don’t know the answer, except to look to Lady Justice and embody that ideology – to ensure that my office fairly and impartially applies the law to everyone, regardless of wealth, power, gender, and race, and to hold my office accountable.
Recently, Delaware City Police Chief Bruce Pijanowski hit the nail on the head, so to speak. At a community online event hosted by the Delaware African American Heritage Council, Chief Pijanowski said that in a police department, (or really in any office or community), management is a three-legged stool, propped up by: policy, training, and culture, and you can’t manage a police department with policy alone. I couldn’t agree more. Lawyers can write policy for decades and attend countless hours of training, but creating a culture of “do the right thing always” begins with leadership, and leadership that is not afraid to hold others accountable. I’m proud to work alongside law enforcement leaders in our county who aren’t afraid to hold others accountable.
There is one message that is worth repeating: you can support law enforcement and condemn racism. It isn’t one or the other. You can support law enforcement while condemning murder, even if the murderer wears or uses the uniform to perpetrate a crime. One thing we cannot do, however, is perpetrate further crime by harming law enforcement or fellow community members. More than ever we need each other. We need community members to feel safe to open their businesses, to pursue their American dream. We need law enforcement to provide stability in our communities. We are all Americans, and we live in the greatest country in the world. It is beyond time to end racial disparity, and we can do so while supporting the men and women who risk their lives every day to protect us.
Melissa A. Schiffel is Delaware County prosecutor.