“We Must Accept Finite Disappointment, But We Must Never Lose Infinite Hope” Martin Luther King, Jr.
The recent deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, followed by the tragic killings of NYPD Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, have put our nation at a crossroads.
We face two very distinct paths. We can look away and ignore the events that have brought us to where we now stand. Or we can acknowledge the work to be done and make this a transformative moment for our criminal justice system.
We have built a society in which the rule of law is enforced by those with badges. We rely on them to make decisions on a daily basis that impact generations yet unborn.
Law enforcement officers place their lives on the line every day they put on their uniforms. They face immense danger to keep our homes and neighborhoods safe.
There are very few who would want to make the choice between saving one life or another, and yet that is exactly what they are called on to do—with the other life sometimes being their own.
These are incredibly difficult jobs, and we mourn the loss of officers who have paid the ultimate price in the line of duty. They are our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends and family.
Yet, that job does not place the police above accountability or eliminate the need for change.
Here in Baltimore and throughout the nation, we understand that there are times when our police officers must use force to protect us and themselves— but when unarmed Americans lose their lives at the hands of law enforcement, we must acknowledge the problem and act to address it.
We are living at a moment in history when the actions of our police, our prosecutors, and our entire system of justice and public safety are receiving extraordinary scrutiny—and criticism.
The vast majority of people marching on our streets, rallying at our government buildings, and calling for change are not anti-police. They are seeking to renew the trust upon which our criminal justice system relies.
Our higher values of reason, cooperation, and support for the Rule of Law are being buffeted by a storm of passions and fear. We must quiet that storm and replace it with a more productive and constructive climate.
Effective law enforcement depends upon public cooperation and support. This is why we must take a hard look at the actions that lead to the killings of unarmed African Americans across the country and the response of our criminal justice system when these deaths occur.
Restoring trust will require hard work and understanding from all sides. It will require an honest dialogue and a willingness to put ourselves in each other’s shoes.
Restoring trust will require us to ask ourselves why, according to data collected from 16 states by the CDC, African Americans are killed during legal intervention by law enforcement at a rate three times higher than their White peers.
It will require us to ask why police officers of color are raising complaints about being subjected to racial profiling when they are off duty or in plain clothes.
Perhaps most importantly, restoring trust will require detailed inquiries at the national level into how we train police and how communities interact with officers.
My colleagues in the House of Representatives and I have a sworn responsibility to respond effectively to those calls. Congress must investigate these matters on a bipartisan basis to ensure that all Americans are treated equally, proportionately and fairly by the law.
Last month, I joined Ranking Member John Conyers Jr. of the Judiciary Committee and Ranking Member Bennie Thompson of the Homeland Security Committee in requesting hearings on criminal justice reform — a call that also came from some Republican leaders.
There are many issues that deserve our attention, including the use of force by police departments; police department hiring, training, and outreach practices; and proposals to help rebuild communities by fostering dialogue and trust between law enforcement and those they serve.
We also need to consider the role prosecutors play in holding police accountable and how to ensure justice is carried out appropriately.
The path we must choose, as a nation, is one that translates the lessons we have learned in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cincinnati, and elsewhere into broad and constructive reforms – and expanded federal support – for police forces across the country.
A balanced strategy is the key — one that supports both the safety of police officers and the civil rights of every American. I welcome the participation of all viewpoints in the hearings to come.
Rep. Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.