Advertisement

Voicing pain and anger, black Congress members demand DOJ action on police shootings

“A police violence epidemic continues to engulf the land.”

Rep. John Lewis (center) and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus gather outside the Justice Department. CREDIT: Alice Ollstein
Rep. John Lewis (center) and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus gather outside the Justice Department. CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Black members of Congress gathered outside the U.S. Department of Justice on Thursday to demand the agency act to end the “epidemic” of police shootings of black men and women, calling on the attorney general to more aggressively investigate and prosecute police officers who use excessive force on unarmed civilians.

As protests over yet another police shooting continue to rage in Charlotte, North Carolina, members of the Congressional Black Caucus marched to the DOJ Thursday afternoon. They hand-delivered a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch demanding she use her power to curb police-inflicted violence, which has claimed at least 790 lives already this year.

Rep. Alma Adams (D-NC), who represents Charlotte in Congress, arrived in the nation’s capital Thursday after spending most of the week in her home district meeting with protesters, police officers, and religious leaders. She told ThinkProgress that her constituents sent her back to Washington with a clear message.

“People have lost trust. They have lost hope,” she said. “But they see hope here, with the Attorney General. They want her to step in and make sure people are treated fairly and that there is peace and justice and transparency.”

Advertisement

While the events in Charlotte have captured the country’s attention this week, several Congress members spoke about recent shootings in their own home states. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) said that the family of Philando Castile, who was shot and killed in his state in July, is still coming to terms with the loss. Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA) noted that his state is still grieving the death of Alton Sterling, who was also killed by police in July.

“A police violence epidemic continues to engulf the land,” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) told reporters outside the DOJ. “All across America, in the north, in the south, in the east, in the west, innocent, law-abiding African American men continue to be killed by police officers using excessive force without justification.”

In their letter to Attorney General Lynch, the Black Caucus members outlined a list of demands — reforms they have not been able to pass in a Republican-controlled Congress.

For example, the caucus is asking the DOJ to “aggressively pursue investigations, indictments and prosecutions” against police officers involved in injuring or killing unarmed civilians. Members of Congress also suggested during Thursday’s press conference the expanded use of police body cameras, mandatory bias training for officers, and more thorough investigations of problematic departments.

“No justice no peace is not a threat. No justice no peace is a forecast.”

When the DOJ’s Office of Civil Rights has opened investigations into police departments — including recently in Baltimore, Cleveland, and Ferguson — they have found widespread discriminatory practices, excessive use of force, and the prioritization of revenue over safety. The Black Caucus members say many more investigations like these are needed to uncover and fix systemic criminal justice problems.

Advertisement

The lawmakers emphasized that no one change will solve the widespread problem — and that even commonly suggested fixes, like police body cameras, have proven to be problematic.

“Even when body cameras are worn, the technology’s utility is thwarted when officers lose, drop or fail to turn on their cameras,” said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA). “Without these video recordings, we hear the same excuses from law enforcement justifying these killings of black men and women, such as, ‘He appeared to be reaching for a weapon.’”

Ellison also warned the cameras could become “an extension of the surveillance network” and urged police departments to take privacy into consideration.

“We have to approach this with some care,” he said. “I think more important than [cameras], police should have deescalation and implicit bias training.”

Ellison and others urged the U.S. government and the public to try to understand the Charlotte protesters’ fear and anger, emphasizing that true healing can only happen when police officers are held accountable.

“No justice no peace is not a threat,” Ellison said. “No justice no peace is a forecast.”