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Democratic delegates mull Clinton's ability to change law enforcement policy

Michael Brown's mother, Lezley McSpadden, listens on March 5, 2015, as attorney Daryl Parks announces the family's intent to sue former police officer Darren Wilson and the city of Ferguson for her son's death.
FIle photo | Bill Greenblatt | UPI
Michael Brown's mother, Lezley McSpadden, was slated to make an appearance at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. It comes as a debate over changing law enforement policy is affecting the course of the presidential race.

PHILADELPHIA – Michelle Argento may be living proof of the vast impact of Michael Brown’s shooting death.

Argento lives in Gillette, Wyo., a 30,000-person town in the middle of the Mountain West. The Bernie Sanders delegate paid close attention to what happened in Ferguson – and added that it showcased a need to overhaul America’s criminal justice system.

“I see so much of this going on and happening in terms of policing and discrimination,” said Argento, who is originally from Illinois, while riding on the subway to the Wells Fargo Arena. “And I’m hoping that this movement continues on and continues to be peaceful, but also fights for the central views that we’re all humans, that we’re all Americans, that we all deserve justice regardless of our skin color, beliefs and creed.”

Nearly two years after Brown’s death, law enforcement public policy is back in the forefront of the nation’s consciousness – and the presidential contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. That’s especially the case after police shot and killed Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn. And the renewed debate comes after gunmen killed five police officers in Dallas and three police officers in Baton Rogue.

Clinton has embraced efforts to change how police officers do their jobs, get trained and are held accountable. That message was at the forefront on Tuesday when Brown’s mother, Lezley McSpadden, make an appearance at the Democratic National Convention with mothers of people who were killed by police officers.

Some prominent attendees at the DNC have high hopes that Clinton will push for changes in the criminal justice system.

“I think she needs to clearly spell out how she will deal with police reform,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton in a brief interview with St. Louis Public Radio. “[She needs to say whether she] will continue the kind of justice system we saw under Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, who went into Ferguson and dealt with civil rights around what was being done systematically to black residents. I think she needs to address specifically what her Justice Department will look like in the continuation of things like that.”

Clinton’s posture on the issue is in marked contrast to Trump. He’s often been critical of activists and protesters who demonstrate after police-involved killings. And during his speech at the Republican National Convention, Trump said that he had "a message to every last person threatening the peace on our streets and the safety of our police: When I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order our country."(It should be noted that Missouri gubernatorial candidates have expressed similar sentiments.)

After making a speech to the Missouri delegation on Monday, author and college professor Michael Eric Dyson told St. Louis Public Radio that “the erotic intensity of our devotion to law and order is something that Donald Trump has brilliantly exploited.”

“But I think Hillary Clinton has a very tenable, pragmatic and powerful position,” Dyson said. “We appreciate, support, nurture and love the police. And the police that do their jobs and do them well should be celebrated and embraced and supported to the ultimate degree. What we’re against are people who are abusive in the name of law and order – who with a badge and a gun or a nightstick commit mayhem and problems.

“And black people who are democratic citizens … deserve the right to be protected like any other population,” he added.

Caution and pessimism

But some Missouri elected officials who have tried to change laws dealing with policing aren’t expressing a lot of confidence about the road ahead. 

U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Kansas City, speaks during the Missouri delegation's Tuesday breakfast.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Kansas City, speaks during the Missouri delegation's Tuesday breakfast.

That includes U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Kansas City Democrat who has sponsored legislation aimed at expanding the use of body cameras. The former mayor of Kansas City says what’s been done on a federal level on law enforcement policy – such as providing $25 million for body cameras – are small steps. But he added that they’re not nearly enough to comprehensively deal with the issue.

And even though he’s a strong Hillary Clinton supporter, Cleaver doesn’t expect much to change if the Democrats don’t take control of Congress.

“Members of Congress, at least in one area, believe that it’s a zero sum game,” Cleaver said. “If you try to do something for police or deal with any misconduct, that it’s confirming that they are evil and wrong. And so, you just stay away from that. I think that’s a flawed concept and a flawed way of thinking. But that’s what’s going on.”

Cleaver said that Clinton's good interpersonal skills could only go so far when lawmakers have a fear of being seen as antagonistic to law enforcement.

“I was the mayor of Kansas City. We had almost a thousand police officers. I think if you go talk to the police chiefs and all of the command staffs, they would say … ‘he’s one of the best mayors we’ve ever had at supporting the police department,’” Cleaver said. “But at the same time, I don’t have to deny that there are some bad cops. I mean, there are some bad preachers, some bad cooks. And so, unfortunately Congress doesn’t want to act because they don’t want to make a statement. They don’t want a statement interpreted to be anti-police.”

The gridlock isn’t just relegated to Washington, D.C. Numerous bills aimed at mandating the use of body cameras, requiring outside investigations for police-involved killings and increasing sensitivity training have died in the Missouri General Assembly.While this past session brought some progress, some policymakers and activists contend that Missouri is lagging behind other states.

Rep. Clem Smith, D-Velda Village Hills, is a Bernie Sanders delegate. He too is pessimistic that Clinton can move the policy needle, adding he’s “just not confident in feeling that there’s going to be that push against law enforcement as a whole from her administration.”

“I think on [the Republican] side, there’s no question that they’re going to back any sort of military-like police structure to 'keep America safe,’” Smith said. “So that’s what's going to happen. And then coming from the Democratic side, there will be talk at least about how we need to change it. But in the end, I don’t think there will be any systematic change. Both sides are going to try and play and use it to their advantage.”

But while emphasizing that Congress would need to be Democratic, state Rep. Sharon Pace, D-Northwoods, was a bit more optimistic. And the Clinton delegate said the Democrats are putting forth a much different message than their Republican counterparts.

“With Trump, it’s just a divisive situation,” Pace said. “We’re dividing people. We’re separating individuals by race and color and ethnicity. And so, I just think it’s going to be a big issue and we’re going to continue to separate instead of building a great USA like we have.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.