Civil rights leaders push Obama for mandatory racial bias training

A long list of civil rights leaders and black Democrats on Monday urged President Obama to make policy changes aimed at improving relations between local law enforcement and racial minorities.

In a letter to the president, the lawmakers and activists said this month's shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by a white policeman in Ferguson, Mo., is tragic proof that local law enforcers "too often" approach minority communities "as if they are military combat zones instead of communities where people strive to live, learn, work, play and pray in peace and harmony."

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They called on the administration to make specific policy changes to address those concerns, including new efforts to bolster law enforcement training, demilitarize local police forces, broaden the oversight of law enforcement incidents and improve diversity in police departments.

“Youth of color, black boys and men especially, who should be growing up in supportive, affirming environments are instead presumed to be criminals and relentlessly subjected to aggressive police tactics that result in unnecessary fear, arrests, injuries, and deaths,” the letter reads.

Spearheaded by the Center for Global Policy Solutions, a community-empowerment group, the letter was signed by more than 100 activists, educators, religious figures and civil rights advocacy groups from around the country.

Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Reps. John Lewis (D-Ga.), Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), endorsed the message.

The letter arrived on the same day that 18-year-old Michael Brown was buried near St. Louis. Brown was killed Aug. 9 after a confrontation with a police officer on the streets of Ferguson, a largely black suburb, leading to nearly two weeks of violent protests that churned headlines across the globe.

Images of the police response — which included the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, assault rifles and military-grade vehicles — went viral on the Internet and fueled bipartisan calls for an examination of how local law enforcers operate.

Autopsy results showed that Brown was shot at least six times, including twice in the head. Several investigations are ongoing.

In Monday's letter to Obama, the lawmakers and activists listed several specific steps that they said the administration could take to improve relations between law enforcers and communities of color.

They said the Department of Justice should establish guidelines for racial bias training for every law enforcement officer in the country, and are urging the department to create new standards for independent investigations of police incidents designed to discourage the threat of cover-ups. They are also urging new rules for hiring and retaining minority law enforcement officers and pushing the administration to halt programs that transfer surplus military equipment to local police departments.

The signers are quick to acknowledge that many facts surrounding Brown's death remain unknown. "However," they wrote, "the pattern is too obvious to be a coincidence and too frequent to be a mistake.

"From policing to adjudication and incarceration, it is time for the country to counter the effects of systemic racial bias, which impairs the perceptions, judgment, and behavior of too many of our law enforcement personnel and obstructs the ability of our police departments and criminal justice institutions to protect and serve all communities in a fair and just manner." 

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