• In the Wake of Baltimore: What Can Congress Do?
  • May 5, 2015
  • Law Firm: McDonald Hopkins LLC - Cleveland Office
  • Every few months, members of Congress have been faced with searing images of peaceful protests that turn into violent demonstrations after a black man has died at the hands of police.

    The latest episode arose after 25-year-old Baltimore resident Freddie Gray died in police custody. Now, the city of Baltimore is in turmoil, streets are burning, the National Guard has been deployed, and the city is observing a curfew. The deaths of black men at the hands of police have been thrust into the national spotlight. From Ferguson, Missouri, to New York City, communities have lashed out against police brutality with an anger that has been simmering for years—if not decades.

    At every turn in these situations, politicians urge peace, President Obama takes a stand, and Congress holds hearings. Then, outside of a task force, nothing happens.

    But, the underlying causes of these riots, politicians say, need to be dealt with, even if it would take more political will than this Congress has shown a propensity for.

    The root causes of these tragedies are so complicated, so widespread, and so ingrained in communities and police culture, that lawmakers across both political parties say expecting the federal government to legislate its way out of local community issues is a daunting task.

    Getting a grasp on what they can do in the immediate future to combat tensions in communities between police and residents, however, appears to be the first challenge for Congress. After the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, there were calls for the expansion of body cameras, and in the Senate, the Homeland Security Committee held a hearing on the militarization of community law enforcement agencies.

    But bold action to address those issues have not even been taken up on the floor of either chamber.

    Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri says she hopes that change will come in small ways. During the hearing last Congress, McCaskill, a Democrat, was one of the leading senators who railed against the the country's ballooning 1033 program, a government grant that has provided local police with more than $5 billion worth of military-grade equipment the Defense Department once used on the ground in war zones, from Iraq to Afghanistan.

    McCaskill's office says she is planning to introduce legislation in the coming weeks that would provide oversight to federal grant programs to local cops. But in a Republican-controlled Congress and with a crammed agenda in the Senate, it may be difficult to make room on the schedule for such legislation.

    Tuesday, a bipartisan group of senators, including Republican Whip John Cornyn of Texas and Democrat Gary Peters of Michigan, also introduced a bill that would create a National Criminal Justice Commission to examine the country's justice system, from courts to law enforcement.

    But some senators say, in order to change the distrust between police and residents in Baltimore and elsewhere, Congress needs to take a broader approach to combating poverty.