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Long Odds for Congressional Action on Policing

Cummings sheds a tear while greeting Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan in Baltimore the morning after citywide riots followed the funeral of Freddie Gray. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)
Cummings sheds a tear while greeting Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan in Baltimore the morning after citywide riots followed the funeral of Freddie Gray. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)

It’s the fourth high-profile episode in less than a year in which police have been involved in the death of a black man under questionable circumstances — this time in Baltimore, a short drive north of Washington, D.C.  

But neither the proximity of Monday’s riots over the April 19 death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray nor the usual outpouring of “it’s time to do something” rhetoric are likely to inspire House lawmakers to tackle any number of existing legislative proposals aimed at addressing growing nationwide concerns about aggressive police tactics. Some House Democrats, particularly those who have sponsored stalled bills to strengthen police oversight and curb racial profiling, were quick Tuesday to blame Republicans for inaction.  

“The lack of access to quality education, the lack of access to opportunity and the lack of hope all mix together in a powder keg set to explode — as it has in Baltimore,” said Ben Garmisa, a spokesman for Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., who introduced legislation in January that would require public reporting of deadly interactions between law enforcers and civilians. “So far the Republican Congress has not done enough to address these challenges, but it’s clear they must do more, and do it immediately.”  

In remarks at the White House, President Barack Obama also suggested the GOP-controlled Congress was an inhospitable environment for change.  

“I’m under no illusion that out of this Congress we’re going to get massive investments in urban communities,” Obama said, “and so we’ll try to find areas where we can make a difference around school reform and around job training and around some investments in infrastructure in these communities and trying to attract new businesses.”  

Obama, the country’s first African-American president, who has established a task force to make recommendations on how to respond to recent episodes, acknowledged that he sees a disturbing trend: “We have seen too many instances of what appears to be police officers interacting with individuals, primarily African-American, often poor, in ways that raise troubling questions. And it comes up, it seems like, once a week now or once every couple of weeks.”  

But House GOP leaders, who have recently been talking up the party’s first 100 days of the 114th Congress , were reluctant to wade into the thorny debate over reining in law enforcement.  

Given an opportunity to make a commitment to bringing any of the outstanding proposals to the House floor for a vote — from bills outfitting officers with body cameras to more sophisticated data collection on violent arrests — House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy demurred.  

“I’m not weighing anything out of what someone wants to discuss,” said the California Republican who controls which bills come to the floor. “This is the People’s House. If there’s a better way of going about something,” he said at his weekly news briefing, “we’ll look at it.”  

But on Tuesday, with Baltimore still reeling from Gray’s funeral the day before and 24 hours of violence, looting and arson in the streets, most House Democrats were content to focus their responses to statements of regret, condemnations of violence, hopes for peace and deference to the nascent Justice Department investigation into the events surrounding Gray’s death.  

By taking a pass on demanding immediate action on any of several bills aimed at reining in police misconduct, top Democrats seemed to suggest a certain discomfort in politicizing a tragedy — as well as a reluctance to commit to policies that could be perceived as anti-police.  

Perhaps they are also struggling with what Congress’ role ought to be in any of this.  

“We need to make sure that every citizen is treated fairly and equally by law enforcement, just as we need to expect every citizen to respect our law enforcement,” House Minority Whip and Maryland Democrat Steny H. Hoyer said at his weekly briefing with reporters Tuesday morning.  

“I think there’s a responsibility for us to look at what alternatives are available to us,” he added. He didn’t say, however, whether he was hoping those alternatives would come from inside the legislative branch or the executive branch, whether he was looking for individual measures or provisions in appropriations bills.  

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi didn’t get specific, either, though at the request of CQ Roll Call an aide confirmed the California Democrat was prepared to support forthcoming legislation from Judiciary ranking member John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., and others to address myriad police accountability issues.  

“Gray’s death in police custody demands answers, and I am pleased that the Department of Justice has opened an investigation into what has happened,” Pelosi, a Baltimore native, said in her statement. “Once again, we are reminded of the need to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the communities they police.”  

Even Congressional Black Caucus Chairman G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., stopped short of demanding specific congressional action.  

“We all play a critical role in helping restore trust in law enforcement and our justice system,” Butterfield said in a statement. “The CBC will continue to work with federal, state and local governments to ensure this system is fair and impartial. African Americans deserve to be treated equally before the law.”  

Meanwhile, Democratic Baltimore congressman Elijah E. Cummings was back in his district, marching with other nonviolent protesters and cleaning debris off the streets. At Monday’s funeral for Gray, Cummings delivered a eulogy, promising Gray’s mother there would be justice for her son.  

“I’m in the twilight years, but I am telling you we will not rest, we will not rest until we address this and see that justice is done,” Cummings said.  

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, D-Mo., who saw similar violence spin out of control on his home turf after last year’s police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., called for action — and reflection.  

“The problem is that we really neither talk about how we can improve race relations, nor do we do anything about it,” he said, kicking off prepared remarks at an unrelated event on globalization and the economy. “Sometimes we talk about it and talking about it isn’t doing anything about it. I think it’s really dangerous, no matter what your views are. It’s a dangerous situation.”  

Matt Fuller and Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.

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