Police, race emerge as signature focus for AG nominee

Police, race emerge as signature focus for AG nominee
© Greg Nash

As the nation’s top cop, Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch appears likely to make cooling the simmering tensions between police and the black community a signature issue.

Lynch, now in the midst of her conformation process, is widely expected to become the first African American woman to lead the Justice Department. Her ascension to the high-profile Cabinet post would come amid public uproar over the recent police killings of unarmed black men in New York and Missouri.

Lawmakers and advocates are already looking to Lynch to take a leading role in repairing the damage wrought by the deaths and their fallout, while also moving forward with a host of policy changes initiated by current Attorney General Eric HolderEric H. HolderDNC chairman: Trump’s tax cuts and budget plans are 'morally bankrupt' Holder: Trump's election fraud claims are laying foundation for voter suppression Dem rep: Jim Crow's 'nieces and nephews' are in the White House MORE.

"She will be sensitive not only to enforcing the laws of the land, but also to issues that are unique to the African American community, such as police misconduct and the need to reform the criminal justice system,” Rep. G. K. Butterfield, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told The Hill.

The black community’s trust in law enforcement has been shaken since last summer’s killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown.

Garner, a 43-year-old from Staten Island, died in July after Daniel Pantaleo, a white New York Police Department officer, applied a chokehold during an arrest. The confrontation and Garner’s death were caught on a video that went viral on the Internet.

Brown, an 18-year-old from a St. Louis suburb, was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson, Mo., police officer, after a confrontation in August.

Protests and riots broke out around the country after both police officers were exonerated by grand juries.

"Few things have pained me more than the recent reports of tension and division between law enforcement and the communities we serve,” Lynch said last week during her hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"If confirmed as attorney general, one of my key priorities would be to work to strengthen the vital relationships between our courageous law enforcement personnel and all the communities we serve,” she added.

As a black woman with strong law-and-order credentials, Lynch, observers say, would be uniquely positioned to ease strained relations between police and minority communities they serve.

Lynch’s reputation for being a hard-nosed, impartial prosecutor has won her wide support from civil rights advocates, law enforcement, Democrats and even some Republicans.

This will serve her well as she seeks to “resolve the tensions” between law enforcement and the African American community, said Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick LeahyHollywood, DC come together for First Amendment-themed VIP party The Hill's 12:30 Report Lawmakers talk climate for Earth Day, Science March MORE, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.

"She has prosecuted those who have committed crimes against police officers, as well as police officers who have committed crimes,” Leahy (D-Vt.) said during her confirmation hearing.

Lynch has earned the trust of civil rights groups by pursing cases of police brutality.
During her time as a federal prosecutor in New York, Lynch went after a police officer accused of sodomizing a Haitian immigrant with a stick in a precinct bathroom.

More recently, she was assigned to investigate the Eric Garner case.

As the “face of law enforcement,” Lynch will have the opportunity to improve public perceptions of police, said Hilary Shelton, Washington bureau director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

She is also respected of law enforcement for being tough on criminals, including corrupt police officers, said Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police.

"The law enforcement community doesn’t stand up to defend cops who have done the wrong thing,” he said.

Pasco said he met with Lynch and is “very impressed” that she does not have any pre-existing judgements about or biases against police.

“I like the idea that she doesn’t concede that the police are necessarily wrong in every situation,” Pasco said.

Lynch promised to "draw all voices” into the conversation about reforming law enforcement and cracking down on cases of police misconduct.

“She has to be a person who brings both sides together, police and the community,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told The Hill.

It’s unclear when the entire Senate would vote on her confirmation, but Judiciary Chairman Charles GrassleyChuck GrassleyComey to testify before Senate Judiciary Committee GOP to kill language exempting staff from new ObamaCare repeal bill House cyber chairman wants to bolster workforce MORE (R-Iowa) suggested the committee would vote after lawmakers return from their break on Feb. 26.

Some Republicans have come out against Lynch’s nomination. Sens. John CornynJohn CornynSenate's No. 2 Republican: Border tax 'probably dead' McConnell: Senate will pass short-term funding bill to avoid shutdown The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (Texas) and Rand PaulRand PaulRand Paul to teach a course on dystopias in George Washington University Destructive 'fat cat' tax law a complete flop. It's time to repeal it. Trump must take action in Macedonia to fix damage done by Obama and Clinton MORE (Ky.) both said this week they will oppose her nomination and they could soon be joined by other Republicans on the committee, but there’s little they can do to block it.

With broad support from Democrats, Lynch only needs two Republicans to push her through the committee and she has reportedly won over Sens. Orin Hatch (Utah) and Jeff FlakeJeff FlakeTrudeau, Trump speak for second night about US-Canada trade Trump says he may break up 9th Circuit Court after rulings go against him Trump administration weighing order to withdraw from NAFTA MORE (Ariz.).

If confirmed, civil rights advocates and congressional Democrats hope Lynch will push a series of police reforms to prevent future misconduct by law enforcement.

The Justice Department can threaten to withhold funding from local police departments that do not cooperate, they say.

Better police training could help officers avoid tragic confrontations like those that ended in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, they say.

All too often, police officers will use excessive force, Shelton said.

The Justice Department could resolve this problem by issuing use of force standards that not only provide law enforcement with better guidance but also make it easier to prosecute officers who cross the line, he added.

“We think the use of force should be a last resort, because police officers should be equipped to deescalate the situation,” said Kanya Bennett, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Justice Department could also ensure more accountability by requiring police to wear body cameras, Bennett said.

Local police departments should also be required to report the number of arrests, fatal shootings, and the type of force used in these cases in exchange for federal funding, she added.

“That transparency will encourage a greater sense of trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve,” Bennett said.