Former Sheriff Poised to Be GOP Point Person on Policing
Who do House Republican leaders call when the Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill is on thin ice and the party’s susceptible to critiques it doesn’t care about police-civilian clashes occurring nationwide?
They call the sheriff. That’s how many members on Capitol Hill refer to Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., the former King County sheriff whose 33-year law-enforcement career was capped by his capture of the infamous Green River serial killer.
The six-term legislator has been talking for years about the need to invest in community police departments to improve relationships between officers and the people they serve.
But a string of recent incidents involving deadly police force in Ferguson, Mo., Staten Island, N.Y., Baltimore and elsewhere, have given new resonance to Reichert’s calls for action, and sent a signal to Republican leaders that maybe their party ought to respond.
At Tuesday’s GOP leadership news conference, Reichert was brought in to discuss the importance of funding community police resources in the fiscal 2016 CJS spending bill, which — like every other appropriations bill this year — has come under siege from all sides.
“It was intentional to bring him in today,” said House GOP Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, also from Washington. “With all the unrest around the country and growing scrutiny over local law enforcement, I think his perspective and his leadership is really important at this time.”
McMorris Rodgers, whose job is to promote the image of a politically in-touch Republican Party, suggested the public will see more of Reichert: He’ll soon be leading a Republican Policy Committee working group, alongside Chairman Luke Messer, R-Ind., to explore legislative options for easing tensions between police and civilians.
Reichert told CQ Roll Call he initially asked leadership to set up a formal select committee to probe the subject matter, something like the one established in 2014 to investigate the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. The task force was a consolation prize, but Reichert is willing to take it, saying a leadership-sanctioned effort “brings a floodlight.”
People who work with Reichert, however, say he brings his own floodlight when he talks about policing.
Reichert acknowledges his background gives him credibility. As King County sheriff, he started programs that connected officers with community youth. Congress needs to appreciate the value of such initiatives, Reichert said, especially those proven to work.
But Reichert’s low-key approach also makes him a compelling figure among colleagues. In an environment in which lawmakers constantly compete for attention, a little humility goes a long way.
“He doesn’t talk to hear his voice heard,” said one GOP insider. “He talks when he has something important to say.”
Reichert felt such a pull Tuesday, when he drew on deeply personal life experiences — such as growing up with an abusive father — to urge colleagues to support the CJS bill.
“Families aren’t perfect. Communities are not perfect. Legislation is not perfect. Law enforcement is not perfect. … We can find the imperfect very easily,” he said. “The hard part is finding those things that are good.
“The bill’s not perfect,” Reichert said of the CJS measure, “but the priority’s coming together and recognizing that we need to support law enforcement across this country.”
With his background, Reichert might succeed in bridging the very real gap between Republicans and Democrats on community policing.
House Republicans have largely steered clear of the charged national debate that has exploded in the wake of the recurring instances of young African-American men dying after violent encounters with police. But Democrats — particularly members of the Congressional Black Caucus — have demanded action.
Reichert, who is white, thinks there’s an opportunity for common ground. While he didn’t address the racial tensions underscoring the debate, he acknowledged police might be at fault.
“Cops make mistakes,” he said, “and that’s what we have to admit. We have to hold them accountable.”
He said he’s reached out to CBC members such as Reps. John Lewis, D-Ga., and Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, to explore possibilities of publishing joint op-eds on the subject.
Lewis, a civil-rights icon who was nearly beaten to death by police officers in 1965, said he welcomed Reichert’s interest. In a brief interview with CQ Roll Call, however, the Georgia Democrat stressed the importance of bipartisan collaboration: “We should have a caucus, really. We all should become members of it.”
Still, plenty of Democrats are skeptical of the Republican effort. As with last summer’s all-GOP task force on the child migrant border crisis, Democrats see being excluded as a sign Republicans are only interested in appealing to their base.
One senior Democratic aide noted it was bizarre that lawmakers whose districts were the sites of fatal police-civilian confrontations would not be included in the effort just because, in many cases, those members happen to be Democrats.
Reichert told CQ Roll Call he agreed Democrats should be involved, and hoped at some point they would be. He pointed out his original request for a select committee would have automatically included members from the other side. In the meantime, he reiterated the importance of the exposure the Republican Policy Committee-backed working group would bring to an issue that’s been ignored on Capitol Hill for years.
But while GOP leadership might have something specific in mind for the task force, Reichert said giving the party some talking points on community policing was the furthest thing from his mind.
“I haven’t even thought about it that way,” he said. “What I think about is moving forward in what’s right and what’s wrong.
“I view myself as a cop in Congress,” Reichert said, “versus a congressman who used to be a cop.”
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