Congress goes after police

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Lawmakers are targeting police with new and old pieces of legislation in the wake of riots in a St. Louis suburb sparked by the killing by a police officer of an unarmed black teenager.

Much of the focus has been on the heavy military equipment many local police agencies have received from the Pentagon under a 1991 law meant to combat drug dealers.

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Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Friday that program will not get a rubber stamp when it comes up for reauthorization later this year.

Other lawmakers have raised concerns about racial profiling and excessive force against African Americans by police.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) called for passage of his End Racial Profiling Act, which would bar federal funding for law enforcement agencies unless the prohibit racial profiling.

The involvement of Cardin and Levin, who represent states far from Ferguson, Mo., the St. Louis suburb where 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed last Saturday, illustrates how the events in Missouri have reverberated throughout the country.

Demonstrations and protests about the police’s actions in Ferguson were held in dozens of cities on Thursday night, highlighting the pressure lawmakers around the country are feeling.

Six New York lawmakers have asked Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate the killing of Eric Garner, who died in an altercation with Staten Island police who had placed him in a chokehold. 

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a prospective Republican candidate for president in 2016, has led bipartisan calls to demilitarize the police. 

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, warned Friday that “equipping police officers with the tools of war does nothing to repair a torn community.”

And Levin (D-Mich.) said he would review a Pentagon program that provides weapons and heavy military equipment to police units.

Under the program, which serves 8,000 state and federal agencies, more than $5 billion worth of property was transferred to law enforcement, including nearly $450 million last year alone, according to the Defense Logistic Agency's website. 

 

“Congress established this program out of real concern that local law enforcement agencies were literally outgunned by drug criminals,” Levin said Friday. “We intended this equipment to keep police officers and their communities safe from heavily armed drug gangs and terrorist incidents.

“[But] before the defense authorization bill comes to the Senate floor, we will review this program to determine if equipment provided by the Defense Department is being used as intended,” he said.

Cardin’s bill would mandate that police officers receive training on racial profiling. It would also require the Department of Justice to provide Congress with reports of any ongoing discriminatory profiling practices.

“We need to better educate more of our law enforcement officials in the differences between specific suspect descriptions and sweeping generalizations or profiling that wastes valuable resources,” Cardin said on Friday. 

Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, said the Congress has a responsibility to review federal programs.

"We're not afraid of any review," he said.

But he rejected the idea that racial profiling is “systemic” in law enforcement.

Rich Roberts, a spokesman for the Florida-based International Union of Police Associations, said people are “too caught up in the cosmetics” of what they saw in Ferguson.

Roberts said the focus should instead be on "the training and the decision-making of what to use and when to use” the military-style equipment.

Brown’s killing sparked five days of tense confrontations between the town's largely white police force and the hundreds of mostly black residents who took to the streets to protest the shooting. 

On Friday, local police in Ferguson first released photos that showed Brown allegedly robbing a convenience story. 

Brown’s parents accused police of attempting character assassination on their son, and police later said the officer who shot Brown did not know he was suspected in a robbery. 

It is unclear whether reforms tackling racial profiling or the militarization of the police would have a chance to move through a bitterly divided Congress, though the latter issue has attracted an odd mix of staunchly liberal Democrats and Tea Party Republicans.

Writing in Time magazine, Paul blamed Washington for encouraging “the militarization of local police precincts” with taxpayer-funded programs “to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies.”

“There should be a difference between a police response and a military response,” Paul wrote. 

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), has been drafting legislation for months to bar the transfer of certain military-grade weapons and equipment from the Pentagon to local police departments. With the events in Ferguson stealing the week's headlines, Johnson took the chance to reiterate his intent to introduce that proposal later in the year.

Johnson is talking with members of both parties, including Paul, in hopes of building bipartisan support ahead of the bill's release next month, spokesman Andrew Phelan said Friday.

A similar proposal, sponsored by Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), was shot down on the House floor by a lopsided 62 to 355 vote in June, as 145 Democrats – including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and the rest of her leadership team – joined 210 Republicans in opposition. 

Pelosi's office said Friday that the events in Ferguson “show need for greater oversight and guidance.”

“The Leader supports examining the overall federal effort of giving military-type equipment to local police departments,” an aide said in an email. “Cutting off all funding - like the Grayson amendment - is a blunt instrument, but oversight and appropriate scale of funding for such programs need to be examined.”

Prominent members of the House Judiciary Committee are calling on Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) to hold hearings, not only to examine the Brown shooting, but also to probe the broader issues of racial profiling and the excessive use of force by police nationwide. 

“This situation requires immediate congressional scrutiny,” Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.), Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) wrote Thursday.  

A spokesperson for Judiciary Republicans said Goodlatte supports the investigations that are underway, but suggested he doesn't see an immediate need for Congress to step in.

“The Committee will be monitoring the results of the investigation,” the spokesperson said in an email. 

Jesse Byrnes contributed.