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Senate Grapples With Racial Disparities In Justice System

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) (UPI file photo/Bill Greenblatt)
File photo
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) (UPI file photo/Bill Greenblatt)

This week, the Senate gave final approval to legislation that requires police departments to report the deaths of individuals in police custody. The bill’s passage on Wednesday came one day after witnesses before a subcommittee on human rights also expressed their support for the measure; their testimony illustrated why the legislation is needed. The bill, which passed the House last year at this time, now goes to the president for his signature.     

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights, opened the human rights hearing, saying that “since its founding, there has been a divide between the promise and reality of America.”

While the election of the first black president shows the nation's progress, said Durbin, “when protesters take to the streets and shout out ‘hands up, don’t shoot’ or ‘I can’t breathe’ or ‘black lives matter,’ there’s still more work to do.”

Witnesses testified on the need for legislative action on bias in law enforcement, disproportionate incarceration rates for minorities, the use of military equipment by local police and greater data collection -- and returned repeatedly to the Ferguson protests as the reason these issues have a new urgency.

Bias in the justice system

U.S. Sen. Corey Booker, D-N.J., said the “anguish” felt by protesters is that “the system is woefully biased against minorities in our country.” He described his own experiences in his testimony before the committee.

Credit Wikipedia
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.

When Booker's parents, the first to integrate their neighborhood in 1969, talked to him about the police and his behavior growing-up, “I distinctly remember my parents lecturing me, with anger in their voice, that I did not have the margin of error, when it came to experimenting with drugs or other behaviors, that others had,” he recalled.

The country’s ongoing struggle with bias against minorities, said Booker, is present at each step in the justice system -- from the police to the courts to prisons.  “In my lifetime, we have seen something happen that is remarkable on the planet Earth, which is the explosion of the American prison system,” said Booker, who also noted that the federal prison population has grown by 800 percent over the past 30 years. 

“African Americans make up 13 percent of the country’s population, but 40 percent of the federal prison population,” Booker said.

Booker supports passage of Durbin's Smarter Sentencing Act to reduce the federal prison population, now 2.3 million, by giving federal judges greater leeway in sentencing those convicted of nonviolent crimes, including marijuana use.

U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., echoed Booker’s concerns, saying minorities question their ability to “receive justice in the court system,” when they see the “inherent conflict” in bringing charges against law enforcement.

With the controversial decisions in the Michael Brown case and the Eric Garner case not to indict police, the grand jury system came under particular scrutiny.

“The cycle continues as we saw just last week when grand juries guided by prosecutors who work on a daily basis with the police fail to even call for a trial in open court. It is not surprising that the system breeds mistrust,” Gutierrez said.

Cedric Alexander, president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, is also concerned about the public’s perception of fairness in the grand jury process. “There’s a disconnect in this country, not just in policing, but across the whole criminal justice system. Even the grand jury process needs to be explored.”

Alexander said that the protests are no longer a reaction to those decisions but are growing into a movement that will require real legislative action to satisfy.

"A great number of people who are marching across this country every night are just American citizens who are saying we want to see something different," Alexander said. "Our whole criminal justice system needs to be explored and possibly revamped.”

Deep-seated problem

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn. and the first Muslim elected to Congress, said the protests across the country are “about a long train of abuses, not one particular case.”

Credit U.S. House of Representatives
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn.

“It’s not the first time the police have been videotaped using excessive force," said Ellison. "None of us can ever forget Rodney King. It’s not the first time people have died in police custody, and it isn’t the first time that a grand jury has vetoed justice.”

If any proof were needed, Ellison pointed to the Kerner Commission report, which examined the 1967 race riots and concluded that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal.” Nearly 50 years ago, “we were dealing with this same issue, and it is on us today, and we must make a call to action to reverse this trend so that every American can feel that the government really is (ensuring) liberty and justice for all.” 

Injustice takes place within a social and economic context, said Ellison, using Ferguson as an example. 

“When Officer Wilson confronted Michael Brown, on Canfield Drive in Ferguson, the interaction did not take place in a vacuum," he said.

Certainly requiring police body cameras, reforming the grand jury system and holding preliminary hearings in officer-involved shootings all would be steps forward, Ellison said, but lawmakers must also address the “structural economic abandonment” of cities.

"We cannot continue to solve our economic and social problems with criminal justice solutions,” Ellison said.

“Over-policed and under-protected” poor and minority communities, combined with “economic-deprivation” were the “spark and kindling” of unrest and distrust between law enforcement and the communities they serve, said Ellison.  “Please, let us not forget that investing infrastructure, education, public jobs programs, and providing for social supports which help people stay from the hardest aspects of an unfair economy are essential."   

Militarization of law enforcement

Militarized policing goes far beyond what was seen in Ferguson, said Laura Murphy of the ACLU.  SWAT teams, she said, were originally created to deal with life and death emergencies, such as a hostage crisis.

But now, “a recent ACLU report found that SWAT teams were used 79 percent of the time for raiding a person’s home, most often for drugs,” Murphy said.

The problem is not the equipment, but how it’s used, said Alexander.  “One thing we cannot use it for, is for people who are peacefully protesting in this country.

While opponents have called on the administration to end the programs, others say police need access to such equipment in the case of mass shootings and other situations with heavily armed criminals. Alexander argued that access to such equipment needs to have greater oversight and departments need better training on how and when to use such equipment. 

Earlier this month, the president ordered his staff to develop new rules for the oversight, distribution and training of local departments that seek to acquire equipment from the Pentagon’s 1033 program.  Those recommendations are due back to the president early next year.