51st Annual Meeting Speaker Highlight: Walter Katz


Since registration for SECF’s 51st Annual Meeting opened earlier this year, several new speakers have been added to the lineup – many of them marking their first time on the agenda.

One of them, Walter Katz, is a vice president at Arnold Ventures, a philanthropy dedicated to tackling some of the most pressing problems in the United States, including health, education, public finance and, Walter’s specialty, criminal justice.

Walter will bring this expertise into Race, Place & Systemic Inequities, a breakout session taking place at 1:00pm on the meeting’s first day – Wednesday, November 11. 

Walter’s career has put him in direct contact with both law enforcement agencies and accused criminals. For 17 years, he served as a public defender – experience that came when “tough on crime” rhetoric and policies dominated public discourse.

“My work as a public defender in California starting in the 1990s started just as the tough-on-crime era was getting up to full speed – the three strikes laws, truth in sentencing, everything was very tough on crime,” he said in an interview on the Arnold Ventures website. “I was a baby public defender doing misdemeanor cases and I found myself having a great deal of interest in cases involving resisting arrest. I immediately saw that those cases often had a really sharp divergence of what the story was. It really got me sensitive to use of power and to abuse of power, and what the role of systems is to keep that in check.”

Walter says a truly fair and just judicial system would protect the rights of the accused and keep the innocent out of prison, but also ensure public safety.

“Things get a little bit more ambiguous in those cases where you have real victims who have been through real trauma. You also may be representing people who themselves have gone through real trauma and been victims of something in their lives,” he said. “We have to recognize that fair and just process not only includes the person who’s being charged with the crime but also the person who is the victim of the crime.”

After his time as a public defender, Walter was named Deputy Chief of Staff for Public Safety in the administration of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. There, he oversaw one of the most complex police reform efforts in the United States while also interacting directly with citizens in a city where the role of the police is controversial.

“When I was at the mayor's office, I was at a meeting on the South Side of Chicago when a member of the community stood up and she said it as succinctly as I’d ever heard somebody describe it: We want the police to show up when we call them, we want them to solve the problem, and we want them to treat us fairly when they do it,” he said. “People have different opinions about what good policing looks like but no matter what community you go to, it kinda boils down to those three things.”

Today, in his work at Arnold Ventures, Walter is focused on evidence-based approaches to building a justice system that works for all people.

“Policing has been going through this era of reform for the last 5 or 6 years, and quite often there have been moves to reform without necessarily having a body of evidence underlying it to point toward a direction in how to a) have policing be more effective and b) have policing have legitimacy and act justly,” he said. “My objective is to be able to build a body of evidence to move policing further in that direction.”

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