In the past few weeks there has been a lot of discussion about President Barack Obama's response to the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases. Each failure to win indictment for the officers who killed these unarmed black men has left millions of Americans feeling insecure about local law enforcement's ability to enforce their constitutional rights to equal protection, let alone protect their lives.
It is true in these high-profile cases in Missouri and New York. It is true in Ohio, where John Crawford III, a black man, was shot by a police officer as he shopped in a local Walmart, carrying an air rifle he picked up from store shelves. It is also true in Maryland, where the U.S. Department of Justice is conducting a review of Baltimore police policies and procedures at the request of city leaders after allegations of brutality and misconduct were raised. With simultaneous crises in several states, it is reasonable for us to look to our commander in chief for guidance. But it is also necessary that we look to Congress to act in response to this national law enforcement crisis. The question we need to be asking is, what will House Speaker John Boehner do?
My advice to Speaker Boehner would be to channel the voice of our mutual hero, the late former Republican Congressman Jack Kemp. Twelve years ago I was at an event in South Central Los Angeles for the 10th anniversary of the Rodney King verdict. I was waiting on the wings of the stage to speak after Jack, as I knew him. Jack was outraged about the state of affairs in the neighborhood's schools, which had not seen major strides since the early 1990s. He kept pointing at the school down the street and saying, "Our children, our children, our children" — his point being that they are all our children, because they are all America's children.
Jack Kemp recognized in that moment that we are all one American family, and he challenged us to act as one. If he were alive today, he would ask us to see Michael Brown, Eric Garner and the other black men and women who have been killed by police as all of our kids, brothers and sisters — even if they are of a different race or ethnicity than us. Following in that example, here are a few steps that Speaker Boehner and Congress can take to start fixing the problem:
First, Congress must fund and accelerate the adoption of body cameras for police. The Eric Garner case demonstrated that video evidence is not always enough to deter police from acts of brutality, or to indict an officer who killed a man unnecessarily. Nevertheless, as with Rodney King, we would not even be discussing this case — let alone the next one — without the video evidence.
Second, Congress must adopt meaningful national standards for use-of-force training. The most common standard among U.S. jurisdictions is for police to receive eight hours of training on one day while the officer is at police academy. In the U.K., where most police officers do not even carry guns, they are required to refresh their training once every six months.
Third, we should make it standard procedure to have special, independent prosecutors in cases of alleged police abuse. Accountability is key, and the non-indictments in the Brown and Garner cases raise reasonable concerns about possible prosecutorial ineffectiveness as well as conflicts of interest. It is not just unreasonable but unfair to expect that a prosecutor will be able to fairly seek the prosecution of an officer with whom he may have worked closely for years.
Fourth, Congress should apportion funding for personality trait testing that can potentially weed out abusive applicants to our police forces. In most cities, the majority of abuse complaints focus on a small number of officers — and the problem may come down to thin skin and an authoritarian streak. According to one study, four out of five incidents that involved police use of deadly force were preceded by a threat to the officers' masculinity.
Now that we have heard proposals from President Obama, it is time for us to hear a powerful and pragmatic agenda from Speaker Boehner — preferably one that would have made Jack Kemp proud.
Ben Jealous is partner at Kapor Capital and former president and CEO of the Baltimore-based NAACP. He currently serves as chairman of the Southern Elections Fund and as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.