By Mike Lillis
Several prominent members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) are calling on Congress to probe the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo.
Until now, the congressional scrutiny surrounding the death of Michael Brown at the hands of Ferguson police has focused on the Department of Justice's role in investigating the incident.
But Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) — all members of both the CBC and the House Judiciary Committee — said Thursday that Congress has a responsibility to look into the shooting as well.
Jackson Lee, meanwhile, is calling for a similar investigation by both the House and Senate Judiciary panels. The problem, she argued, has grown into "an epidemic."
"We will not stop these types of confrontations with the police unless there is a national investigation of police and community relations," she said in a statement. "It is crucial that the House and Senate Judiciary committees hold hearings in the fall on the continued incidents of the killing of African-American males by law enforcement."
Last weekend's shooting death of the 18-year-old Brown by a Ferguson police officer has sparked five days of animated protests in the largely black suburb of St. Louis. The stand-off between protesters and police has, at times, resembled a war zone, with police in riot gear confronting some protesters with assault rifles drawn. Images of tear gas-filled streets have gone viral on the Internet.
Fueling the demonstrations, the Ferguson Police Department has refused to release the name of the officer involved. The department suffered another black eye when officers arrested several journalists covering the story, only to release them without charges or explanation.
In their letter to Goodlatte, the lawmakers said the "deeply troubling" episode merits congressional action.
"These incidents raise concerns that local law enforcement is out of control and, instead of protecting the safety and civil liberties of the residents of Ferguson, is employing tactics that violate the rights of citizens and hinder the ability of the press to report on their actions," the Democrats wrote. "This situation requires immediate congressional scrutiny."
President Obama addressed the issue Thursday from Martha's Vineyard, saying he's ordered Attorney General Eric Holder to “do what is necessary to help determine exactly what happened, and to see that justice is done.”
Both the FBI and the DOJ's Civil Rights division will conduct the probe.
On Monday, CBC Chairwoman Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) joined Conyers, the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, and Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), a CBC member representing Ferguson, in calling on Holder to expand the DOJ's investigation to include not only Brown's death, but also "the potential for any pattern or practice of police misconduct by the Ferguson Police Department."
Conyers spokeswoman Stephanie Baez said Thursday that Justice has not yet responded to that request.
Meanwhile, Jackson Lee is at once calling "to hear both sides of the story" surrounding Brown's death, while also suggesting that criminal missteps by the officer involved are "obvious."
"All of us are strong supporters of law and order and most of us, such as myself, have strong working relationships with local and federal police agencies. I know good police persons who are professional and follow the law," she said. "In the instance of Michael Brown and other cases, a failing to follow the law is obvious.
"Michael Brown was shot down in the street."
— Updated at 5:23 p.m.