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114th Congress Has Hands-Off Approach to Post-Ferguson Police Issues

After the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last August and the protests against police brutality that ensued, it seemed a bipartisan consensus had emerged in Washington that something was deeply wrong with law enforcement in majority-black communities. Protesters demanded Congress correct disparities in policing that make it far more likely for a black person to die in custody than a white one.

But Congress is demonstrating that the ability of citizens to get results from pressure on the streets is severely circumscribed in today’s Washington. Even after a damning Justice Department report in March finding that Ferguson’s police had discriminated against blacks, followed by the shooting of an unarmed black man by a South Carolina police officer this month, Congress is in no hurry to move on legislation.

Yet some hope remains that members of the Congressional Black Caucus might unite with libertarian Republicans and spur action, in particular to curb the transfers of military equipment from the Pentagon to local police departments. And the Obama administration has made moves on its own.

Republican opposition comes largely out of principle — Republicans view policing as a strictly local issue. But Democrats say it also shows that the GOP figures the people who protested last year aren’t its voters, anyway.

“The minority community is not part of their constituency,” said Rep. Steve Cohen, a Democrat who represents Memphis, Tenn., and who’s been frustrated in his attempts to move legislation related to Ferguson.

The GOP’s decision to let the issue go is surprising because of the momentum that built after Ferguson and the death at the hands of police of another black man, Eric Garner, in New York City. House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington called for hearings. Speaker John A. Boehner said he had “unanswered questions” about the deaths.

Several other Republicans spoke up for legislation to rein in the use of military equipment by local police, including Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who is now a presidential candidate.

In December, Congress made what may end up being its only substantive response to the killings, by enacting a bill by Democratic Rep. Robert C. Scott of Virginia. It reauthorized a lapsed 2000 law to require states to report quarterly on people killed in police custody.

There’s plenty more Congress could do. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus have called for federal funding to provide incentives for police departments to hire independent prosecutors to handle cases of alleged police brutality, instead of the local district attorneys who work with the police on a regular basis and might be beholden to them. They’ve asked Congress to help pay for body cameras.

None of those ideas has gained support from Republican lawmakers.

Republicans say state and local governments should respond to their own constituents if there are problems with their police departments. Congress, even in offering incentives, is interfering in local affairs, the thinking goes.

To shift responsibility for policing from local governments to the federal government is a “breathtakingly bad idea,” said Rep. Tom McClintock, a conservative Republican from California’s Sierra Nevada foothills.

If local voters want changes, they should vote for local politicians who are willing to make them and pay for them, McClintock said. And communities that don’t have problems shouldn’t have to pay for those that do, he added. The problem for those who want Congress to do more is that people such as McClintock are their best Hill allies.

A tea party-backed Republican with a strong libertarian streak, McClintock is among the most skeptical in his party of police power. While other Republicans moved to defend local cops last year, McClintock was an early co-sponsor of the only bipartisan bill in response to Ferguson that remains under consideration. Sponsored by Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia, it would bar the Pentagon from providing surplus military equipment to police.

Congress established the programs at the Justice and Homeland Security departments that pay for the equipment’s distribution. In 1996, Congress let the Defense Department give surplus gear to police departments.

But the images from Ferguson of heavily armed police quelling protests wearing camouflage and military helmets and riding in armored vehicles got lawmakers’ attention.

McClintock said he’s worried about militarization because it puts police in the role of enforcer, rather than community protector.

In the Senate, Democrat Richard J. Durbin of Illinois held a hearing last year on the issue before a Judiciary subcommittee. Sen. Claire McCaskill, the Missouri Democrat who chaired a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee, held another. This year, the Republicans in charge of Senate committees haven’t followed up.

When Johnson introduced his anti- militarization bill last fall, Republican Raúl R. Labrador of Idaho was chief co-sponsor. “The Pentagon’s current surplus property program blurs that line by introducing a military model of overwhelming force in our cities and towns,” Labrador said at the time. Before reintroducing the measure this year, Johnson added more guns, ammunition and trucks to the list of items the Pentagon could not provide to police. Citing the changes, Labrador declined to sign on, as did Jones.

McClintock said he’s not doing much to encourage his GOP colleagues to get involved this year. Asked whether he thought the issue could regain momentum, he said, “It’s hard to say; all of my discussions have been so focused on budget issues and it really hasn’t come up.”

Some Congressional Black Caucus members remain optimistic. Johnson is pushing other bills to require independent prosecutors to handle cases alleging police misconduct and to allow the Justice Department to prosecute police officers for murder under federal law. Currently, the DOJ can only bring cases for civil rights violations.

Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, who represents Kansas City, Mo., backs legislation by Democrat Al Green of Texas to pay for body cameras for police. He’s also looking at a bill to discourage municipalities from relying too heavily for funding on the fees police collect for traffic offenses, a big issue in the DOJ’s Ferguson report. He said he hopes to introduce that bill with a Republican co-sponsor in the next few weeks. Cleaver reached out to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy in an effort to find a path forward but the California Republican has not responded and spokesmen for the relevant House and Senate committees either did not respond to requests for comment or said they had no hearings or legislation planned.

“Conservatives don’t want the federal government intervening and telling local communities to spend scarce resources on police reform,” said Stephen Rushin, a University of Illinois law professor who studies police misconduct. “It’s seen as a heavy-handed approach by the federal government.”

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