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Democrats Call for Judiciary Hearings on Ferguson Violence

A police officer standing watch as demonstrators protest the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown conceals her identity. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
A police officer standing watch as demonstrators protest the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown conceals her identity. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Three senior Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee are calling on panel chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., to hold hearings on the violence that has erupted in Ferguson, Mo., following the police shooting of an unarmed African-American teenager on Aug. 9.  

“For the past five days, the citizens of Ferguson have protested the killing of of an unarmed teenager by local police,” wrote ranking member John Conyers Jr., Mich., and two subcommittee chairmen, Robert C. Scott of Virginia and Steve Cohen of Tennessee, in their letter on Thursday afternoon. “Last night, law enforcement broke up the protest with brutal force: confronting demonstrators in riot gear and armored vehicles, arresting journalists, and firing tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd.  

“These incidents raise concerns that local law enforcement is out of control and, instead of protecting the safety and civil liberties of the residents of Ferguson, is employing tactics that violate the rights of citizens … this situation requires immediate congressional scrutiny,” they continued. Conyers, Scott and Cohen want Goodlatte to allow the committee to take a full look at the circumstances that have transpired in the aftermath of the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown, and how those circumstances play into larger, troubling patterns in communities across the United States.  

One such pattern, they said, was the “use of deadly force by police against unarmed African Americans in cities around the nation.”  

“We appreciate that many of the facts surrounding the tragic … shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer are still coming to light,” the lawmakers acknowledged, “but the incident has exposed long-simmering racial tensions between an overwhelmingly white police force and a majority African-American population.”  

The other issue to explore, said the trio of Democrats, was the “series of troubling arrests in Ferguson of local political figures and embedded journalists, caught up in the chaos of protests in the small, St. Louis suburbs over the past several days.”  

“Finally,” Conyers, Scott and Cohen wrote, “the Committee must address the extensive militarization of state and local police … In Ferguson, why do local police dress in military-style uniforms and body armor, carry short-barreled 5.56-mm rifles based on the M4 carbine, and patrol neighborhoods in massive armored vehicles?”  

Questions about the militarization of local police are being posed by other lawmakers , too.  

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., wrote in an opinion piece for that overly militarized local police have become a problem, despite the best intentions of most officers.  

In an appearance on MSNBC , Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., called for President Barack Obama to federalize the Missouri National Guard to take control of the streets of Ferguson away from local authorities to protect protesters. Lewis, who was almost killed by law enforcement during what was supposed to be a peaceful civil rights march in the 1960s, is no stranger to police brutality.  

And next month, Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, plans to introduce a piece of legislation he has been working on for some time, but which has new resonance in light of the events in Ferguson. It would end a Defense Department program that transfers free surplus military equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies.  

Goodlatte’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.  

A GOP Judiciary Committee aide told CQ Roll Call in an email that “Chairman Goodlatte supports the ongoing efforts to conduct a thorough investigation of the events surrounding the death of Michael Brown.”  

The aide added, “the Committee will be monitoring the results of the investigation,” referring to the ongoing probe by the Justice Department, FBI and local law enforcement.  

Niels Lesniewski, Emily Ethridge and Connor O’Brien contributed to this report.

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