The question came from a college senior at St. Anselm’s College, with a youthful mien and the buzz haircut befitting someone planning a career in law enforcement.
“You have often been a vocal critic of police and the criminal justice system, both at the state and federal levels,” the young man asked Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), one of 20 or so Democrats in an ever-expanding field seeking the party’s presidential nomination.
“As a Massachusetts voter and aspiring police officer who has lived through countless tragedies… how can you assure me that you will support legislation that keeps law enforcement safe?” the student asked.
The town hall gathering Monday, broadcast on CNN, provided yet another candidate’s forum for some of the Democratic contenders who are vying for the chance to challenge President Donald Trump.
The setting was a packed auditorium at St. Anselm’s, a liberal arts college in Manchester, New Hampshire, that becomes a hotbed of political activity every four years as the presidential campaigns take shape. The candidates have criss-crossed the country, focusing largely on the four early-vote states, and from time to time on cable news, answering audience and moderators’ questions — as Warren did on Monday night.
“You know, I talk with a lot of people in different parts of the criminal justice system, people who are law enforcement, people who are in the judicial system, people who are incarcerated … and what all of them tell me is we’ve got a problem,” she said in response to the question.
“Our criminal justice system is broken, and right at the heart of that problem is race, and we have to address this head on,” Warren continued.
“Study after study after study shows us that African-Americans compared with whites are more likely to be — for exactly the same crimes — they’re more likely to be arrested, they’re more likely to be arraigned, they are more likely to be taken to trial,” she said.
“They are more likely to be wrongfully convicted and they are more likely to receive harsher sentences. That is a criminal justice system that is not only locking up too many people, it is a criminal justice system that has a problem of race right at the heart of it, and we need to call it out for what it is.”
In addition to the Massachusetts senator, CNN forums were held at the same venue Monday evening for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN).
Warren, 69, has made fighting for the little guy something of a hallmark of her campaign. Earlier on Monday, she unveiled an ambitious plan to relieve the burden of academic loan debt for millions of college students. The plan outlined by her campaign would erase all student debt for more than 75% of Americans still paying off loans.
Other of her programs so far would provide daycare for middle class and financially struggling parents, invest in housing to make apartment rentals more affordable, and help rescue failing family farms.
Warren closed the loop on the student’s question by responding that the best way to make police safer is, in fact, to make the criminal justice system more colorblind.
“No one is safer in a world where we have a broken criminal justice system… We need to make sure that everybody is entitled and gets good legal representation. Throughout the system we want to make sure the right people are incarcerated and not the wrong people because they couldn’t afford to hire a lawyer,” she said.
“Justice is not just for those who are rich, justice is for everyone and the only way we’re able to get that in America is if we’re able to put the resources into it. Third part of this is we should get rid of for-profit private prisons. It is an outrage in America.”
And Warren added that are formerly incarcerated people deserve a more humane re-entry to society after they leave prison.
“[W]hen people leave the prison system, they need to be reintegrated. They need to be able to find a job, find decent housing, and they need to be able to participate in the political process. And that means they need the right to vote to be reinstated. They are American citizens,” she said.
The issue that the student raised — making streets safer for police — can be achieved by making it harder for criminals to get their hands on firearms and by cracking down on the gun lobby.
“One of the main ways that we could help make our police safer is to get serious about gun safety in this country … We need universal background checks, we need to take weapons of war off our city streets,” said Warren, who is an original co-sponsor in Congress of universal background checks legislation.
“Right now, we live in America where seven children and teenagers will die every single day, where the lives of officers are put at risk. We need as a country to step up, to be more responsible, to be willing to push back against the NRA and to put some sensible gun safety laws in place,” she said. “I think that will be the best that we can do.”