CBC head: Black America is ‘in a state of emergency’

Greg Nash

The new head of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) is eyeing a criminal justice overhaul that would tap special prosecutors to oversee cases involving police shootings.

Rep. G.K. ButterfieldG.K. ButterfieldBlack Caucus demands Flint funding from GOP GOP leadership critic finds way around alleged retribution Black Dems rip Trump as 'racial arsonist' over 'birther' controversy MORE (D-N.C.) says the often-chummy relationship between local police and prosecutors can taint the examination of such cases and undermine justice for the victims.

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Butterfield, a former judge, said August’s high-profile shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. — and the controversial nature of the prosecutor’s handling of that case — is clear evidence that the current system is broken and needs a fix.

“There is a common bond between law enforcement officers and prosecutors. It’s natural,” Butterfield said last week during a sit-down interview in his Capitol Hill office. 

“So when there’s a police shooting … I am probably going to advocate some type of special prosecutor, randomly selected, to handle these cases. Appointed by whom? I don’t know. Should it be the chief justice? Should it be the governor? You know, the jury’s still out on that. But we’ve got to look at not using the local hometown prosecutor in cases involving police shootings.”

The push arrives as a growing number of Democrats — and a handful of Republicans — are urging an overhaul of the nation’s criminal justice system in the wake of the Ferguson shooting and several other prominent incidents involving civilian deaths at the hands of police in recent months. 

CBC leaders have been on the front lines of those efforts, arguing that blacks and other minorities are harmed disproportionately by what the lawmakers consider an inequitable and often brutal justice system.

Lamenting that black America is “in a state of emergency,” Butterfield said the issue would be among his top priorities as he takes the reins of the CBC. That push will include not only a focus on police misconduct, he said, but also a much broader examination of efforts to improve law enforcement training, promote community policing, provide quality counsel to poor defendants and eliminate racial disparities in sentencing laws, especially when it comes to controlled substances.

The push is not strictly partisan. In the wake of the Ferguson shooting, some prominent conservatives — including Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulConservative group presses GOP to vote against spending bill Saudi skeptics gain strength in Congress Senators challenge status quo on Saudi arms sales MORE (R-Ky.) and Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) — joined liberal Democrats in calling for new limits on the transfer of military equipment from the Pentagon to local law enforcers. 

As another part of their reform push, CBC members have urged more funding for police body cameras that supporters say promote accountability. They were encouraged this week when President Obama included such a provision in his 2016 budget proposal.  

“With these tools, we can protect the rights of all parties involved and provide better evidence for any police investigation,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), a former CBC chairman.  

At 46 members strong, the CBC is more powerful than it has ever been. Still, with Republicans controlling the House, the group’s leaders are quick to acknowledge they’ve got a tough road ahead to move their agenda.

GOP leaders have shown no interest, for example, in efforts to update the 1965 Voting Rights Act after a 2013 Supreme Court ruling eliminated central provisions. The update is a top priority for the CBC.

Former House Majority Leader Eric CantorEric CantorRyan seeks to avoid Boehner fate on omnibus GOPers fear trillion-dollar vote is inevitable Insiders dominate year of the outsider MORE (R-Va.) had eyed a legislative fix for the law in the wake of that decision. But he was defeated in his primary last summer, and no other top Republican — not even, notably, Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob GoodlatteBob GoodlatteInternal memo: Refugee program vulnerable to fraud Sen. Thune slams Dems for protecting Internet transition Top GOP chairmen investigating foreign visa program MORE (R-Va.) — has taken up the issue.

Butterfield said he didn’t think even Cantor had a real interest in moving legislation.

“Never believed it from the beginning,” Butterfield said. “I didn’t verbalize that to many people, and I was hoping that I was wrong. But when Cantor went down to Selma with John Lewis and came back with this new revelation about the Voting Rights Act, I took it with a grain of salt.”

Cantor spokesman John Murray defended the former majority leader Tuesday, saying Cantor “worked incredibly hard to achieve bipartisan support for needed reforms.” 

“Bipartisan consensus and reform doesn’t happen overnight,” Murray said in an email.

Still, Butterfield emphasized that he’ll be reaching out to GOP leaders in search of areas of common ground. Goodlatte is on that list regarding the voting law, he said, as is Rep. Paul RyanPaul RyanShutdown risk grows over Flint Senate poised to override Obama veto Reid to media: Call Trump a racist MORE (R-Wis.), the head of the Ways and Means Committee, who had been open last year to examining a long-standing CBC proposal designed to fight extreme poverty.

Championed by Rep. Jim Clyburn (S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat, the “10-20-30” proposal would direct at least 10 percent of federal anti-poverty spending to communities where at least 20 percent of the population has lived below the poverty line for at least 30 years.

Butterfield said there are almost 500 counties in the nation where those conditions exist, and that “most of them” are represented by a Republican. He’s hoping to win the backing of Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), who’s been under fire in recent months over reports that, as a state legislator in 2002, he  spoke to a white supremacist group.

“He’s had some missteps over the last few weeks, and I believe this would be a good means of recovery from those missteps if he could work with us on targeted funding,” Butterfield said.

In the absence of legislation, Butterfield said Obama, through the Justice Department, could take executive steps to reform parts of the criminal justice system. An effort to ensure that all defendants have competent counsel, regardless of their ability to pay, is one such step, Butterfield proposed.

“I encourage him to use more of his executive authority,” Butterfield said, “and I believe he will.”