Public Defender Points To 'Growing Frustration' Over 'Unjust System' NPR's Kelly McEvers talks to Kevin Tully, the Mecklenburg County public defender, about the recent unrest in Charlotte, N.C., and police-community relations in the city.
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Public Defender Points To 'Growing Frustration' Over 'Unjust System'

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Public Defender Points To 'Growing Frustration' Over 'Unjust System'

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Public Defender Points To 'Growing Frustration' Over 'Unjust System'

Public Defender Points To 'Growing Frustration' Over 'Unjust System'

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NPR's Kelly McEvers talks to Kevin Tully, the Mecklenburg County public defender, about the recent unrest in Charlotte, N.C., and police-community relations in the city.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Now we're going to talk to Kevin Tully. He's the public defender for Mecklenburg County in North Carolina. His office is asking for people to help restore peace in Charlotte, but he also says people need to acknowledge the real and legitimate problems with the criminal justice system.

KEVIN TULLY: The current unrest I don't believe is simply a reaction to the most recent event - the killing of Mr. Scott. It is the manifestation of years, if not decades of growing frustration with a systemically and structurally unjust system.

People have a right to be angry and frustrated. That's separate and apart from acting in a violent way based upon that. But I think our community at large needs to at first acknowledge that those frustrations and their anger is real and legitimate.

MCEVERS: Can you give me an example or two of cases that would bring these frustrations out for people?

TULLY: There's no single case. It's just about every case of every client my office represents. If you are poor, you are at a disadvantage in the criminal court system. The reliance upon money being tied to preferable outcomes is throughout the system from beginning to end.

MCEVERS: The mayor of Charlotte, Jennifer Roberts, recently told the BBC that Charlotte has actually been a model of community policing. As someone who works really closely with people in the criminal justice system, I mean do you agree with that?

TULLY: If we're comparing against other jurisdictions, it's possible that Charlotte has done a better job than other jurisdictions. But there are huge problems in the policies and tactics and strategies of policing even here in Mecklenburg, and they have - largely have their roots in the war against drugs.

And if I can for a second speak to our current and widening heroin epidemic in Charlotte, this epidemic is striking mostly white, suburban communities. And there is a consistent cry to treat that epidemic as a health problem, not a criminal problem.

Where was that attitude - and I'm not saying that's the wrong approach - when the communities my office represents who are poor and black primarily were suffering their own epidemic with crack. Their cries for help were met with new, tougher laws, mandatory minimums and a militarized police enforcement strategy. And the vestiges of those strategies remain.

MCEVERS: The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police chief said today that the body cam footage of the police shooting of Keith Scott will be shown to Scott's family but will not be immediately made public. Does the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police department have a history of transparency in cases like this, previous cases?

TULLY: My opinion on that would be no. The general rule is that we don't learn much because it is an ongoing investigation. The willingness to withhold judgment and investigate before making a charging decision when a police officer harms or kills someone is consistently absent when the charging decision concerns a person from a poor community of color.

I'm not saying that this officer is not entitled to have a full investigation and for people to withhold judgment, but it angers people that my clients don't enjoy on any kind of a regular basis that same treatment.

MCEVERS: Kevin Tully is the Mecklenburg County public defender. He joined us from WFAE in Charlotte, N.C. Thank you very much for your time today.

TULLY: Thank you again for caring enough about Charlotte to cover this.

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