Turning Action Into Law to Stop Police Killings

A handful of new bills prompted by the killings of unarmed African-American civilians will go before Congress this year.

Eric Garner; Michael Brown; Ezell Ford; John Crawford III
Eric Garner; Michael Brown; Ezell Ford; John Crawford III Family photo via Facebook; YouTube screenshot; KTLA screenshot; WHIO screenshot

Federal legislation related to police brutality and inspired by the spate of killings of unarmed African Americans, particularly men, will be making its way through Congress in 2015. The large demonstrations related to the #BlackLivesMatter movement are sure to mean even more bills in the 114th Congress. Many assume that the new Republican Congress will continue to stop all progressive legislation, but with fewer than 700 days to the next presidential election, Republicans may be out to prove that they can govern.

The recent Senate passage of H.R. 1447, the Death in Custody Reporting Act, was an early win for #BlackLivesMatter. The bill—which requires police departments to report all deaths during arrests and in custody to the Department of Justice—was authored by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and signed into law by President Barack Obama on Dec. 18. “Hopefully when we get information, we can figure out how to reduce the numbers of people dying,” said Scott about the legislation. The bill requires the DOJ to review deaths at the hands of police and to make policy recommendations.

There are five other pieces of federal legislation set to be presented.

1. The Grand Jury Reform ActIn cases of officer-involved shootings, this bill, introduced by Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), would require the appointment of a special prosecutor charged with conducting a public probable cause hearing when there is evidence of a crime. After the revelations that St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch allowed a witness who had already been discredited by the FBI to appear, several experts have said that an independent-prosecutor bill is essential.

2. The Camera Authorization and Maintenance ActRep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.) will author a bill requiring all state and local law-enforcement agencies that receive Department of Justice grants to have their officers wear body cameras. The bill also requires that cameras be studied for effectiveness and mandates a report to Congress on the Department of Defense’s 1033 Program, through which excess military equipment is turned over to many local police departments.

3. The Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement ActA week after Michael Brown was killed, Rep. Johnson announced that he would draft a bill to end the DOD 1033 Program. On Sept. 16 Johnson offered his bill. Johnson was joined by four Republicans on the legislation. Unlike Cleaver’s legislation, Johnson’s is designed to end the 1033 Program, not just provide oversight. The bill would prevent transfers of high-caliber weapons, long-range acoustic devices, grenade launchers, armed drones, armored vehicles, and grenades or similar explosives.

4. The Transparency in Policing Act: This bill, introduced by Rep. Al Green (D-Texas), would be a lightweight alternative to the bill offered by Cleaver on body cameras. Often, especially in a gridlocked Congress, a bill with fewer oversight requirements is an easier sell. Green’s legislation requires body cameras and also requires the DOJ to study the use of these cameras by law enforcement. Numerous police departments around the country have conducted studies on body cameras and have gotten positive results.

5. The End Racial Profiling Act: As the name indicates, this legislation seeks to protect minority communities from the use of racial profiling by law enforcement. The bill mandates training on racial-profiling issues and links state grant money to effective policies on the issue. In a statement, co-sponsor Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) said, “Recent events demonstrate that racial profiling remains a divisive issue that strikes at the very foundation of our democracy. Though the death of Trayvon Martin was not the result of a law-enforcement encounter, the issues of race and reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct are so closely linked in the minds of the public that his death cannot be separated from the law enforcement profiling debate.”

Even though Attorney General Eric Holder issued new racial-profiling guidelines in December, they restrict profiling only in federal cases, and many elected officials were not happy that the guidelines still allow profiling by many local jurisdictions.

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