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Column: LeBron James schools California on keeping bad cops off the force

LeBron James in pregame warmups wearing "I can't breathe" T-shirt
LeBron James in 2014, showing solidarity with the movement against police brutality.
(Frank Franklin II/Associated Press)

California is one of the few states without a process to prevent law enforcement officers who were fired for serious infractions such as excessive use of force or lying on a report from leaving one department and joining another — a rather shocking omission from a state that takes licenses away from bad florists but not bad cops.

More Than a Vote, the organization founded by LeBron James, Chiney Ogwumike and a host of other Black athletes and entertainers, agreed and sent an open letter to the California Assembly on Thursday imploring members to pass Senate Bill 2, titled the Kenneth Ross Jr. Police Decertification Act.

“More Than a Vote represents many Black athletes who love playing in California,” the letter read in part. “Black athletes who love the culture, the people, and the communities that take them in as their own. That’s why this is so important to an organization like ours. These are the communities that nurtured, protected, and developed the athletes of More Than a Vote and allowed them to live out their dreams.”

The letter is another example of how Black athletes continue to address social justice issues beyond the initial focus of the 2020 general election. James Cadogan, executive director of the National Basketball Social Justice Coalition, told me that “trust is essential to achieving public safety in our communities.”

“But in order to earn that trust,” he said, “lawmakers must implement real accountability measures for law enforcement.”

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Sacramento Kings forward Harrison Barnes, one of the California-based athletes who signed the letter, told me that “as basketball players, we’re in a unique position to bring attention to important societal issues that are affecting our communities, such as police brutality.”

“I know I don’t have all of the solutions myself,” he said, “but I can always lend my platform to people who are doing the work day in and day out to make things better.”

At first glance, the letter may look like more of the same from James, whose social justice work has been an essential part of his NBA career since he and his mother started the family’s foundation in 2004. In 2012, he posted a photo of himself along with his Miami Heat teammates wearing hoodies with the hashtag #wearetrayvonmartin. In 2014, he joined other NBA players wearing T-shirts that read, “I can’t breathe,” in support of Eric Garner.

The issue of police decertification in particular occupies a significant place in his story.

After a grand jury declined in 2015 to bring charges against former Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann for the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, James was notably silent. The victim’s mother, Samaria Rice, called him out.

“I think it’s quite sad that LeBron hasn’t spoken out about my son,” she said. “I’m not asking him to sit out a game. I know his kids got to eat too, but you can at least put on a shirt or something. I’m not asking nobody to quit their job or anything, but make a statement for us Black people out here.”

It was a rebuke that James met honestly, but not glowingly.

“I haven’t really been on top of this issue,” he said later. “So it’s hard for me to comment. I understand that any lives that [are] lost, what we want more than anything is prayer and the best for the family, for anyone. But for me to comment on the situation, I don’t have enough knowledge about it.”

Loehmann, the man who killed Tamir, was the kind of cop whom laws like SB 2 should keep off the force. Before joining the police in Cleveland, he was faulted by his first department as emotionally unstable and unfit. A review said he demonstrated an “inability to perform basic functions as instructed.” He resigned before being fired.

Still, it was possible for him to become a police officer in Cleveland. Worse yet, after killing Rice, Loehmann was hired as a police officer elsewhere in Ohio. (He quit because of protests.)

That sort of revolving door is why the passage of laws like SB 2 is so important.

And it is apt for James to use his platform to pressure California on this issue. In many ways, being called out about his absence during the Tamir Rice story was a turning point. Are you about this life or not?

Since then, James has answered the call a thousandfold. Lending his voice in the fight for police decertification shows how much he has grown since 2015.

I hope the California Assembly can learn a lesson as well and passes SB 2.

@LZGranderson


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