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Posted at 4:40 p.m. on Aug. 14, 2014
The nation’s eyes were riveted on the searing images from Ferguson, Mo., Thursday, but the violent protests in that small St. Louis suburb have also unexpectedly pushed two policy debates closer to the front burner in Washington: Civil rights and the militarization of police.
President Barack Obama called for restraint from both police and protesters, who have clashed since the Aug. 9 police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man.
Civil rights leaders have cited Ferguson as evidence of a need for a renewed focus on the part of Obama and Congress on addressing racial inequality, while others have seized on the use of military tactics and weaponry by police as a issue that Washington must tackle.
A senior Senate Democratic aide was deferential to the White House on strategies for possible legislative actions in the wake of Ferguson, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a former police officer, issued a statement signaling the Senate would be paying attention.
“It is hard to think that the scenes unfolding in Ferguson are taking place in an American city in the year 2014,” the Nevada Democrat said. “Every community in America deserves equal justice and equal protection under the law.”
Reid still has a nomination pending on the Senate floor for the assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division. That nominee, Debo P. Adegbile, was rejected by a group of Senate Democrats who viewed him as insufficiently pro-law enforcement.
Adegbile also faced opposition from Republicans, but once the Senate’s rules were effectively changed to eliminate the chances for the minority to filibuster, processing nominations became a majority responsibility.
Retiring Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, responded to the vote calling it the “lowest point” in his career in the chamber.
“I was here during the impeachment process, trial for President [Bill] Clinton. I kind of thought that was a sham, but that didn’t compare to what happened today,” he said.
Obama could make a personal push for Adegbile’s confirmation, but there’s no reason to believe that the Democratic senators who voted against advancing the nomination would reverse themselves.
There’s also going to be an opportunity for Congress to act to curtail the delivery of heavy weaponry to state and local police agencies. One of the potential items on the Senate’s agenda for September is the fiscal 2015 defense authorization bill, which would seem to be an ideal place to address military surplus distribution.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., wrote in an opinion piece for Time.com that overly militarized local police have become a problem, despite the best intentions of most officers.
“Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts by using federal dollars to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies — where police departments compete to acquire military gear that goes far beyond what most of Americans think of as law enforcement,” Paul wrote. “This is usually done in the name of fighting the war on drugs or terrorism.”
Asked about the possibility of amending the defense bill to cut down on the military police power, a Paul aide expressed familiar GOP concerns about Reid blocking amendments.
“Sen. Paul is hoping for a robust amendment process that will allow all senators to request [votes] on amendments of importance to this nation. Unfortunately, with the way Sen. Reid has continued to operate the Senate, it is highly unlikely he will allow an open amendment process,” the Paul aide said.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a lengthy statement that he shared concerns about the armed police units in Missouri.
“At a time when we must seek to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the local community, I am deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message. At my direction, Department officials have conveyed these concerns to local authorities. Also at my direction, the Department is offering — through our COPS office and Office of Justice Programs — technical assistance to local authorities in order to help conduct crowd control and maintain public safety without relying on unnecessarily extreme displays of force,” said Holder. “The local authorities in Missouri have accepted this offer of assistance as of this afternoon.”
Holder met with Obama on Thursday, and he spoke with lawmakers from Missouri, including Republican Sen. Roy Blunt.
“Today, I spoke with Attorney General Eric Holder about the continued investigation in Ferguson, and I continue to monitor what I believe is close coordination between county and federal authorities,” Blunt said in a statement. “It’s important to remember that this tragedy began when a young man lost his life, and I support local and federal officials in their efforts to conduct open, transparent, and parallel investigations into what happened here. Michael Brown’s memory, his family, and his community are not well-served by more violence.”