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Congress mulls response to Ferguson

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When Congress returns to Washington this week from their long summer recess, lawmakers will waste little time weighing a legislative response to last month’s turmoil in Ferguson, Mo.

The violent stand-offs that followed the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer set off a firestorm of congressional criticism over the police response to public protest. Although the saga has largely faded from the headlines, a number of lawmakers will resuscitate it in coming days in order to highlight various proposals designed to prevent another similar incident. 

{mosads}Senate Democrats will hold a hearing Tuesday to examine the “militarization” of police departments; a House Democrat will introduce legislation to rein in a federal program providing military equipment to local law enforcers; a leading Senate Republican is mulling his own legislative approach to the police crack-down in Ferguson; and members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) plan to use the high-profile event to promote existing bills addressing a range of race-based issues, including police brutality, profiling, youth development and criminal justice reform.

Legislation on such thorny issues has little chance of moving through a highly polarized Congress, especially given September’s short legislative calendar and the political hurdles posed by the looming midterm elections. But that’s not stopping the loudest critics of the police activity in Ferguson, who are hoping the chaos and publicity surrounding the tragic episode marks a watershed moment in how law enforcement is conducted across the country.

“This kind of response by the police has become the problem instead of the solution,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), head of the Homeland Security Committee’s subpanel on finances, said last month. “Today is going to be a new start; we can and need to do better.”

McCaskill’s subcommittee will hold a hearing Tuesday to examine the  Pentagon’s 1033 program, which arms local police with surplus military equipment.

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), meanwhile, is leading the charge in the House. The CBC member is poised to introduce legislation scaling back the 1033 program by banning the transfer of specific military grade equipment — including grenade launchers, acoustic cannons and certain armored vehicles — from the Defense Department to local police precincts. The bill would also establish new reporting requirements designed to ensure that transferred equipment isn’t lost, stolen or misallocated.

Johnson spokeswoman Carole Mumford said Friday that the bill is likely to be introduced the week of Sept. 16. She said it has bipartisan support but declined to name co-sponsors.

“This is a bipartisan bill and we expect to have strong support from both sides of the aisle,” Mumford said in an email.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), another fierce critic of the police response in Ferguson, is also mulling legislation to address the issue, his office said Friday. A spokesman said Paul first wants to sit down with staff upon his return to Washington “to see which direction he wants to go.”

Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, have also questioned the 1033 program in the wake of Ferguson. 

Levin has written letters to both Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Attorney General Eric Holder asking for a review, a spokeswoman said Friday, but he has no plans to stage a hearing in his panel — yet. 

“We will await the outcome of these reviews before deciding on any specific legislation,” spokeswoman Kathleen Long said in an email.

Leahy’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Across the Capitol, CBC leaders, among the sharpest critics of the events in Ferguson, are hoping to use the tragedy to highlight a slew of related bills they’ve introduced throughout the year. The lawmakers are pushing proposals to combat racial profiling, overhaul the criminal justice system, tighten the nation’s gun laws and establish mentoring programs designed to keep kids out of trouble.

Behind Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, the Democrats have called on Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) to hold hearings on the excessive use of police force when Congress returns.

Goodlatte, however, doesn’t share their urgency. The Virginia Republican has said he’s awaiting the results of several ongoing investigations into the Ferguson saga before deciding if Congress has a role to play in response. His position remains unchanged as of Friday, a spokeswoman said.

Tags Bob Goodlatte Bob Goodlatte Carl Levin Carl Levin Chuck Hagel Claire McCaskill Eric Holder Ferguson Missouri Patrick Leahy Rand Paul United States House Committee on the Judiciary

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