Matthew T. Mangino
January 21, 2014
This week, the nation commemorated the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leading black members of Congress chose to remember Dr. King at an event hosted by the Wellspring United Methodist Church in Ferguson, Missouri.
The church is just blocks from where protesters gathered after the grand jury declined to indict the police office responsible for 18-year-old Michael Brown’s death.
The congressmen attempted to connect the non-violent efforts of Dr. King during the civil rights movement nearly 50 years ago to the fight for criminal justice reform today.
“Ferguson is the new Selma,” said Congressman Andre Carson, D-Ind.
Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., said the group planned to push for reform, such as expanded police use of body cameras and independent investigations of fatal police shootings.
According to The Associated Press, Butterfield called the prolonged protests over recent deaths — including Michael Brown, Eric Garner in New York City and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland — a “turning point in race relations.” Garner died after being put in a chokehold by a police officer during an arrest for allegedly selling loose cigarettes; Rice was shot in a park while holding a pellet gun.
There is support for police body cameras. President Barack Obama has asked for $263 million in funding for police body cameras and training. The program would provide funding over three years to help pay for more than 50,000 cameras.
Independent investigations of fatal police shootings will not be so easy: There will be resistance. Recently, the Miami City Commission voted to have the Florida Department of Law Enforcement probe all Miami police related shootings.
Miami's police union president, Sgt. Javier Ortiz, blasted commissioners in a two-page letter: “Miami cops aren’t killing people,” Ortiz wrote. “Bad people in our community are killing our loved ones.”
In St. Paul, Minnesota, the NAACP is calling for an independent investigation of an officer-involved shooting. “The St. Paul NAACP said the man who was killed is a black man in his 20s. The group has called for an independent investigation possibly by someone from outside of Minnesota,” reported KSTP-TV.
Last year, Wisconsin passed a law that requires outside investigation when people die in police custody — the first of its kind in the nation. State Rep. Garey Bies, a former county sheriff's deputy, co-sponsored the bill. Bies said he was troubled by three recent police related deaths in his state.
“I just saw a strong need to have some openness and some credibility, to assure the public that police are there to protect and serve and be upfront and honest with them,” Bies told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “I believe the majority of police are, but when these things come up, it leaves a real question in your mind of what took place.”
The new law requires a team of at least two investigators from an outside agency to lead reviews of in-custody deaths.
The law requires the investigators to release a report of all death related investigations throughout the state if criminal charges are not filed against the officers involved. Law enforcement officials must also inform the victims’ families of their options to pursue additional reviews through the U.S. attorney’s office or other state-level agencies.
New Jersey is considering legislation that would require independent investigation of officer-involved deaths. Under the proposed bill, deaths involving a local police officer must be investigated by at least two independent people who are employed by a county prosecutor's office in a county other than where the incident occurred.
The legislation was introduced last October, a day after NJ Advance Media published a five-month investigation into the 2008 death of Kenwin Garcia, of Newark, after a struggle with New Jersey State Police troopers on the side of an interstate.
There will be more legislation to come as lawmakers respond to the growing concern over officer-involved deaths.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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