Rep. Elijah Cummings

Experienced law enforcement officers understand that maintaining the public’s trust is essential to fulfilling their oath to “protect and defend” our communities.  They also realize, however, that this critically important foundation of their legitimacy has been severely damaged by recent events.

For the public and our police officers alike, we must work together to establish a renewed social contract that will allow our police to fight dangerous crime more effectively while also reassuring the public that those whom we arm to defend us will perform their mission in a professional and law-abiding way. 

Expanded training and oversight of our law enforcement officers are objectives in which we all have an interest – especially those of us who are Americans of Color.

Here is our challenge from the viewpoint of a life-long resident of Baltimore’s inner, inner city.

Few of us in Baltimore would dispute that we have an acute and pervasive need for more effective policing.  Our relatively greater vulnerability to violence and other serious crimes confirms this reality.

At the same time, we also are more likely to be harmed by racial profiling and excessive utilization of force by some police officers.

Most police officers do everything within their power to fulfill their mission in a reasonable, prudent and lawful manner.  Yet, they, too, are being weakened – and even endangered – by the failings of those who abuse their authority.

Neither our police officers nor the public whom they are pledged to protect and defend can afford the profiling and excessive use of force that have become far too evident.

Our dismay and outrage are not limited to the debacle that our nation has witnessed in Ferguson,Mo. However, the “police-involved-shooting of a young man named Michael Brown may well be galvanizing our nation – and our federal government – toward constructive reform.

That is why I am so deeply grateful to my Congressional Black Caucus colleagues, our chair, Rep. Marcia Fudge, and the more than one hundred other American leaders who have joined me in proposing a strong reform agenda to President Obama.  Here is what we propose.

–  All law enforcement personnel, under guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), should be required to undergo racial bias training.

–  National accountability measures must be implemented in circumstances where police shoot unarmed victims.  These measures must be democratic, transparent, and enforceable.

–  Using diversity best practices established in other sectors, DOJ must set, implement, and monitor diversity hiring and retention guidelines for local police departments.

–  To reduce stereotyping and bias, the Obama Administration should authorize support for youth engagement activity under existing youth grants issued by DOJ.

–  The Administration should suspend programs that transfer military equipment into the hands of local police departments and create guidelines that regulate and monitor the use of the military-grade weaponry that has already been distributed.

–  The Administration should establish a national commission to review existing police policies and practices and identify the best policies and practices that can prevent more Fergusons and vastly improve policing in communities across the nation.

– Finally, the Administration should appoint a federal Czar, housed in the U.S. Department of Justice, who is specifically tasked with promoting the professionalization of local law enforcement, monitoring egregious law enforcement activities, and adjudicating suspicious actions of local law enforcement agencies that receive federal funding.

In achieving these objectives, our votes this year are critical.  That is why, in a recent public forum at Baltimore’s Empowerment Temple Church, and again during the Congressional Black Caucus’ National Faith Leaders’ Roundtable, I posed two critical questions directed toward our ability to support police reform at both the local and national levels.

First, I asked, do we think that the events in Ferguson, Mo., could have been different if that small, majority-minority city had elected men and women of greater racial sensitivity to its political leadership and achieved more racial balance within its police department?

I submit to you that we could be having a very different national conversation about our police if the leadership of Ferguson more accurately reflected the lives and perspectives of the citizens it is pledged to serve, protect and defend.

Second, if Barack Obama were not our President and Eric Holder were not our Attorney General, do we think that a U.S. Department of Justice civil rights investigation of the death of Michael Brown, as well as a “pattern and practice” investigation of suburban St. Louis police departments, would be ongoing at this time?

In achieving reform, our voting for progressive local, state and national leaders this November will be critical.

Working – and voting – together, we can achieve a national agenda for change that will restore to our law enforcement officers the legitimacy and honor that we justly afford to those who protect and defend us all.

Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.