Top US lawmakers are to discuss ways of tackling the killing of black suspects by police amid signs that the hitherto muted political response to a spate of recent controversies is giving way to more concerted attempts at reform.
Prominent Republicans Rand Paul and Raúl Labrador will join leading African American Democrats such as Senator Cory Booker and Representative Elijah Cummings for a debate on criminal justice reform at Howard University, a historically black university in Washington, on Thursday.
Cummings told the Guardian he was convening the debate “because I believe we have a unique moment of bipartisan, nationwide support to reform our criminal justice system – a system that has led to the over-criminalization, imprisonment, and even deaths of Americans across the country, particularly in communities of color.
“Communities and law enforcement need to work together to foster strong relationships and mutual respect, and we must address the racial disparities in the criminal justice system.”
The event is expected to discuss calls by Cummings for a better national register of police killings and from Paul for a trial of police body cameras, as well as broader sentencing reform and changes to drug laws.
Paul has been among the few Republicans to champion criminal justice reform, attending a recent White House meeting to discuss possible bipartisan legislation and promising to make it a central theme of his 2016 presidential campaign. But even he has appeared reluctant to wade into individual cases and was criticised for barely mentioning the shooting of Walter Scott during a campaign stop in Charleston just days after the shooting.
His latest efforts to sponsor body camera legislation also risk going the same way as an earlier bill backed by Democrat Emanuel Cleaver, both of which face significant opposition from Republicans worried about the impact on personal privacy of widespread camera use by police.
A handful of Democratic representatives took the House floor on Tuesday evening for a special-order hour to address the Scott shooting and broader issue of police violence in the US.
Citing the police killings of Scott, Eric Garner in New York and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, New York representative Hakeem Jeffries asked what else Congress needs to see in order for lawmakers to be convinced that some form of action is required.
“Over the last year we’ve seen a parade of [horrible] examples of police violence caught on video for all of America to see. We’re compelled to ask the question: what more does Congress need to see in order to understand that we’ve got a problem? That requires Democrats and Republicans, people in the House and the Senate, working in partnership with the president, to address,” Jeffries said.
“I certainly am of the view that the overwhelming majority of law enforcement officers are hardworking individuals who are there to protect and serve the community,” he continued. “But how can we continue to turn a blind eye to the fact that police violence all across America essentially has presented an epidemic of injustice that we’ve got to deal with in a free and democratic society? What more does the Congress need to see to realize that we’ve got a problem that needs to be addressed?”
South Carolina representative Jim Clyburn, the assistant house minority leader, called for Congress to examine federal funding for police body cameras – pointing out that local departments lack the money to implement them as a requirement.
Clyburn, who attended Scott’s funeral, said he was hopeful that Congress “will take a long, hard look at whether or not there’s a role for us to play in responding to what seems to be an epidemic”.
He went on to mention stand-your-ground laws and voter suppression as other issues that were disproportionately affecting minorities and added to “the creation of a venomous climate throughout our country” – likening the environment to the circumstances that led to the civil rights movement.
“I can say that it is clear to me that a lot of the legislation that is being proposed today, a lot of the activities that we are experiencing today, we went through this before,” Clyburn said.
New Jersey representative Bonnie Watson Coleman, another member of the Congressional Black Caucus, also spoke on the floor and discussed her concerns about the safety of her family.
“I stand here as an African American woman who represents the state of the New Jersey, but I stand here as a wife, a mother, a sister, an aunt, and a cousin to African American men. And in that capacity, each and every day that one of them leaves our presence and leaves their home, I wonder, will they come back safely?” Coleman said.