Republicans have, for the most part, avoided one of the thorniest debates roiling the country in recent months: How does the United States begin to address the crisis of people, often minorities, being killed in violent encounters with police?
Now, 11 House GOP lawmakers think it's time Republicans enter the fray. On Wednesday, 10 House Republicans and one Republican senator (Roy Blunt of Missouri) will officially launch a task force aimed at empowering the GOP in ongoing discussions on improving relationships between police and the communities they serve.
According to an early preview of the law enforcement task force's mission provided to CQ Roll Call, the operation is being bolstered by the infrastructure of the House Republican Policy Committee — whose chairman, Rep. Luke Messer of Indiana, is an enthusiastic participant.
Messer said Tuesday it was important to "push past the caricatures" and perceptions that Democrats stand with civilians and Republicans only care about police officers.
"Republicans care about law enforcement and Republicans care about the citizens law enforcement protects," Messer said. "We need to have a voice in this debate, and it needs to be more than just words."
The real force behind the effort is Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., the former King County sheriff who capped his 33-year law enforcement career with the capture of the Green River serial killer.
Reichert — still called "the Sheriff" by colleagues on both sides of the aisle — has spent six terms in the House fighting for increased funding for community-policing initiatives and trying to make the case Congress has a responsibility to help local law enforcement agencies, despite a prevalent sentiment among many Republicans that states need to fend for themselves.
"When we say in the federal government we don't have a role in local law enforcement, we're wrong," Reichert explained, seated beside Messer for the Tuesday interview. "More and more and more we should be engaged in that, not in the day-to-day operations but just in providing the high standards, providing grants that help them."
Reichert's expertise qualifies him to be a spokesman for the cause, as does the range of his perspective and sensitivity to various facets of law-enforcement disputes.
On one hand, he said Tuesday, he can relate to the white police officer in Cambridge, Mass., who infamously arrested renowned black historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. in 2009 while Gates was trying to get into his own home.
President Barack Obama called the officer's action's "stupid," resulting in a White House "beer summit" in which the president sought to reconcile differences over drinks.
"I have been in that position so many times, answering a call and coming across the homeowner," Reichert said. "The alarm goes off, you show up, you're speeding there [at] 100 miles an hour, the lights and sirens are going, you jump out of the car, you sneak up on the house, you're thinking you're gonna find a crook, and you get there and you end up finding a homeowner in the basement trying to turn the alarm [off] and you don't know if he's a crook or the homeowner.
"So the first thing I do," he said, "is I got my gun out, put him on the floor, I'm gonna handcuff him and I'm gonna figure it out."
At the same time, Reichert said some of the videos he's seen of recent high-profile clashes between police and civilian have left him "baffled."
"It's obvious that some police departments, some police officers, need some additional training, because some of the actions you see on YouTube and on TV — as an experienced deputy, I'm looking at these things and shaking my head and thinking, 'Why in the world would you yank somebody out of the car who was stopped because they failed to signal? And get into an argument with them to the point where you're threatening to use a taser?' It should never be accelerated, a stop should never be accelerated," he said.
Reichert didn't name names, but that's the story of Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman who appears to have hanged herself in her Texas jail cell on July 13 as her family sought to meet bail.
Reichert and Messer are focused on a more holistic approach to preventing another Baltimore, another Ferguson, Mo.
"We're not going to come up with a whole bunch of pre-conceived ideas ... or biases," Messer said — but both lawmakers said they were prepared to confront the reality that multiple players could be at fault, police included.
Their current plan is to hold at least one hearing on Capitol Hill and then travel to different communities to meet with relevant stakeholders. Ultimately, they want to be able to produce recommendations that get to the root causes of the disintegration of trust between civilians and police.
One recommendation, Messer and Reichert said, could be increased funding for police body cameras, which could increase accountability for "bad actors" in the law enforcement community.
That's something for which many House Democrats and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the Senate's only black Republican, have advocated, and an openness to exploring that remedy could go a long way in showing the congressional task force is taking its job seriously, free from partisan inclinations.
In fact, Messer and Reichert said they hoped Democrats would be willing to collaborate with them, perhaps forming their own Democratic task force with the goal of eventually combining forces.
Reichert said he'd had discussions with his co-chairman of the House Law Enforcement Caucus, Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J., the former mayor of Patterson.
"If David would want me to do that," Pascrell told CQ Roll Call on Tuesday afternoon, "and he thinks there's some productivity that could come out of it, then yes."
Other Republicans on the task force include a sheriff (Rep. Rich Nugent of Florida), a deputy sheriff (Veterans' Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller of Florida) and a police officer (Rep. Steve Knight of California); two U.S. attorneys (Rep. Susan W. Brooks of Indiana and John Katko of New York); a judge (Rep. Ted Poe of Texas); a mayor (Rep. Mia Love of Utah), and former Homeland Security Chairman Peter T. King of New York.
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