Congress has immense power to help reform police practices nationwide. There is no time to waste.
By Kanya Bennett, ACLU Legislative Counsel
This week, we continued to mourn the loss of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the Dallas police officers. But the reality is that we've been in mourning for victims of color of police violence for a long time: Anthony Hill (Ga.), Laquan McDonald (Ill.), Freddie Gray (Md.), Aura Rosser (Mich.), Michael Brown (Mo.), Eric Garner (N.Y.), Tamir Rice (Ohio), Walter Scott (S.C.), Sandra Bland (Texas), Antonio Zambrano-Montes (Wash.), and Dontre Hamilton (Wis.).
Members of Congress: These are your constituents. These are lives that matter to families, friends, and communities, and they should matter to you too. This is why we say their names.
We have a crisis on our hands. Excessive violence, including fatal police shootings of people of color, must end. We have been focused on bad apple cops when we really need to focus on reforming an entire system. Fairness and justice demand that we act in this moment.
Congress serves an important function in building trust and legitimacy between law enforcement and the communities they serve. The federal government annually provides billions of dollars and resources to law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Where is the guidance and accountability?
And advancing legislative reform is not an attack on law enforcement. It is clear that current policing strategies are not working. But while the relationship between law enforcement and many communities of color is broken, we have to believe it is not be beyond repair. Both constituencies should want intervention.
The ACLU sent a letter requesting that Congress take up six bills that could take the first steps to repair the relationship between community and police:
The Law Enforcement Trust and Integrity Act (H.R. 2875, S. 2168), sponsored by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), provides law enforcement with resources for accreditation, best practices, training, and other resources to increase trust between police and community. The bill also mandates data collection on use of force and other police-community encounters, so the public can begin to know what policing looks like in this country.
The End Racial Profiling Act (H.R. 1933, S. 1056), also introduced by Rep. Conyers and Sen. Cardin, prohibits federal, state, and local law enforcement from engaging in racial profiling and other biased policing. The bill would help law enforcement meet this mandate through training, funding, and data collection. As the Department of Justice formally acknowledged at the end of June, “most people experience some degree of unconscious bias.” Implicit and explicit biases have no place in policing.
The Preventing Tragedies Between Police and Communities Act (H.R. 5221), sponsored by Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), would require police to be trained on de-escalation techniques that focus on preserving life. The legislation builds upon Police Executive Research Forum guiding principles on use of force and its belief that “the preservation of life has always been at the heart of American policing.”
The Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act (H.R. 1232, S. 1441), offered by Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), would prohibit the transfer of some of the most dangerous military weapons from the federal government to state and local law enforcement. Tanks, grenades, bayonets, and other weapons of war have no business in our communities.
The Police CAMERA Act (H.R. 1680, S. 877) is sponsored by Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and provides federal resources to state and local law enforcement so they can develop safe and effective body-worn camera programs that also protect civilians’ privacy rights. Communities and law enforcement agree that cameras can be a part of the solution, but they must be implemented the right way.
The DUE PROCESS Act (H.R. 5283, S. 3045) is a response to the controversial practice of civil asset forfeiture from Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). The bill levels the playing field for individuals who want to challenge law enforcement’s seizure of their property by providing access to counsel, an increased burden of proof for the government, and other procedural protections.
It’s time that Congress becomes a part of the solution, or it will continue to be a part of the problem. When Congress returns from recess in September, they must get to the business of police reform.