Critics lean on Holder

Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderHolder, Yates lead letter backing Biden pick for Civil Rights Division at DOJ Senate panel dukes it out over voting rights Progressive groups announce M voting rights effort MORE's Justice Department is coming under pressure to order sweeping changes to police operations in the United States.

Civil rights and community groups, as well as some lawmakers, are pushing the attorney general to take action to address racial and social problems that, they say, were exposed by the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.


“We’re at our zero moment as a nation,” said Maya Rockeymoore, president and CEO of the Center for Global Policy Solutions, a community-empowerment group. “If we continue to let this go unaddressed, we’re going to have Fergusons springing up all across the country.”

While President Obama has already announced plans to review the use of military equipment by police departments, activists are pushing the Department of Justice (DOJ) to go even further.

They say Holder should consider making racial bias training mandatory for police departments across the country and have floated the appointment of a “police czar” at the DOJ to keep watch for “egregious” activities by local law enforcement.

Proponents of the changes believe their pleas will get a serious look from Holder, who has put an increased emphasis on civil rights issues during his tenure as the first black attorney general.

“I think he understands it. I do think that he … has a desire to address it,” said Rockeymoore. “We are hopeful that he takes these recommendations in stride, and we want to let him know that we’re on hand to support him.”

Underscoring the growing pressure on Holder, civil rights groups, including the NAACP, held a rally Wednesday evening outside the DOJ headquarters in Washington.

Holder is clearly taking a strong interest in the Ferguson case.

He traveled to the St. Louis suburb last week to visit with Brown’s parents and other community leaders, and his department is conducting a federal investigation into the shooting death.

In remarks since his visit, Holder has argued that the tensions at play in Ferguson are nothing new. He said there is “mistrust and mutual suspicion” with law enforcement in some communities, and argued the time has come for a national conversation followed by “concrete steps” on policing, led by the Justice Department.

But he has not indicated so far exactly what steps the DOJ might take.

Advocates and lawmakers have plenty of suggestions.

The Center for Global Policy Solutions on Monday spearheaded a letter to President Obama arguing that “systemic racial bias” among law enforcement played a role in Brown’s shooting.

The letter suggested law enforcement agencies should be required to hire forces that are as diverse as the communities they serve, an implicit reference to images of the predominantly white police force in majority-black Ferguson.

The message to Obama was endorsed by several prominent political figures, including Rep. Marcia FudgeMarcia FudgeFudge on police shootings: Officers want to go home each night, and 'so do we' Julia Letlow sworn in as House member after winning election to replace late husband Working for lasting change MORE (D-Ohio), head of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO.

Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffOvernight Defense: Administration says 'low to moderate confidence' Russia behind Afghanistan troop bounties | 'Low to medium risk' of Russia invading Ukraine in next few weeks | Intelligence leaders face sharp questions during House worldwide threats he Hillicon Valley: Biden administration sanctions Russia for SolarWinds hack, election interference Intelligence leaders face sharp questions during House worldwide threats hearing MORE (D-Calif.) added to the pressure on Wednesday, urging the DOJ to provide funding so that officers across the country could be outfitted in body cameras that record their actions.

The suggestions are stirring anxiety among police groups, which fear being bombarded with new federal mandates.

“With all due respect to the federal government, I think it’s a bad idea,” said Bill Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations. “Anytime the federal government, even with good intentions, steps in and says, ‘We know what’s best for your community … that’s a red flag.’”

Members of Congress have already promised a thorough review of the increased use of military equipment by local police. Many lawmakers said they were shocked and disturbed by the images of Ferguson officers patrolling the streets with armored vehicles and assault rifles.

Obama is reviewing the program as well, a step that civil rights groups have applauded.

But the advocates say a single-minded focus on demilitarizing misses the mark. The problem isn’t just the equipment, they say, but how the police are trained to use it.

“The most important [aspect] is training, because even having military equipment would not be so bad ... if people knew how to use it,” said Angela Glover Blackwell, founder and CEO of PolicyLink, a community group focused on low-income and minority communities.

“Taking tanks out for a peaceful demonstration shows that people don’t know what to do with all that military equipment.”

Johnson of the National Association of Police Organizations said there would be concern about what form that training would take and whether the instructors would bring their own bias to the process.

“Sometimes teachers may have their own agenda,” Johnson said. “I don’t think you want to have an educator with a preconceived notion of, ‘Cops are racists, they need to be reformed.’ ”

While the DOJ has broad powers as the nation’s top law enforcement agency, it does not have the ability to dictate the actions of local police departments.

Civil rights activists note, however, that Washington can encourage changes in policing by making federal grants contingent on certain standards.

“If the AG and the Justice Department stays on this and begins to talk about their role, then we can provide support for local communities to begin to have access to best practices,” said Glover Blackwell. “The federal government needs to take leadership.”