Monday, April 20, 2015
Cleaver: Give our police the tools they need, not weapons of war
This week, I sat down with John Walker from Voice of America to talk about my body camera bill, as well as the Fair Justice Act, a new bill I am introducing.
Over the past year or so, as the news has been filled with shocking stories of shootings and suffocation, I have asked myself, what can we do better to keep people safe? My attention has been focused on three ways I think we can help our communities. We need to:
Give police the tools they need to protect and serve the community, not weapons of war;
Promote transparency and protect the rights of officers and individuals; and
End taxation by citation
Our local police officers and law enforcement deserve respect. Our first responders deserve the best tools and training available to protect and serve our communities. But we must also hold our police officers, many of whom are good and decent people, to a proper standard of conduct.
When the worst happens, our police need to be ready. As Mayor of Kansas City, I worked with them. I depended on them. I was an ex officio Member of the KC Police Board while I was Mayor. After the 1992 acquittal in the Rodney King case, I worked with then-Police Chief Steven Bishop to ensure our community did not collapse into chaos.
Our law enforcement officers and first responders are doing all they can to prepare, and we must do all we can to give them the tools, training, and techniques they need to do their jobs. But that doesn’t mean Main Street should be filled with tear gas, sound cannons, or MRAPs originally built for military use.
The tools police need are ones I’ve advocated for and secured — Byrne Justice Assistance Grants (JAG) that give money to Missouri and Missouri’s Fifth District municipalities, so we may improve their criminal justice systems and better enforce drug laws. These JAG grants are used for prosecution and court programs; prevention and education programs; corrections and community corrections programs; drug treatment and enforcement programs; planning, evaluation, and technology improvement programs; and crime victim and witness programs, and more.
Another tool I’ve supported and secured for our district is the COPS Hiring Program (CHP). These COPS grants provide funding to state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies to hire or preserve career law enforcement and increase their community policing capacity and crime prevention efforts. For the past three years, the DOJ awarded over one million dollars to the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners, to hire police officers. In 2013, for example, they awarded us $1,250,000.
Then there’s ShotSpotter, a new crime-fighting system I helped bring to Kansas City. The Kansas City Police Department has recovered more than a dozen weapons, drugs, hundreds of shell casings and more than a hundred live rounds as a direct result of ShotSpotter. In addition to those numbers, a victim in need of immediate medical care was quickly located, a suspect was apprehended, and numerous ancillary cases have been built on information from citizens, who are developing new relationships with officers now because of quick awareness and response to incidents of gunfire.
My colleagues and I have worked for almost a year now to spur a fundamental shift in local law enforcement, away from military-style response and toward a community-based, proportionate-response style of policing. I have been to Ferguson. I have ministered there. I met with Attorney General Holder, Gov. Nixon, Senators Blunt and McCaskill, and U.S. Attorney Dick Callahan to discuss the ongoing situation in Ferguson. Congressman Clay and I authored a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel calling for a review of the 1033 program. Congressman Clay and I met with Secretary Hagel to discuss in depth the militarization of local law enforcement. The conversation, which was productive and positive, addressed urgent concerns about the militarization of local law enforcement agencies through the distribution of surplus Department of Defense equipment via the 1033 Program. In December, President Obama included, as examples, many of the recommendations and strategies Congressman Clay and I put forth last August: ensuring that all equipment available for acquisition by law enforcement agencies has a legitimate civilian law enforcement purpose; including training requirements that address appropriate use and deployment of equipment; broadening transparency of the 1033 and other agency equipment repurpose programs; and requiring police officers to wear body cameras.
My body camera bill builds on this tradition of helping both citizens and law enforcement officials. This bill establishes a grant program for the acquisition, operation, and maintenance of body worn cameras for law enforcement officers. This legislation is important to any and all members of the public who encounter a law enforcement officer, and it is important for the officers themselves. The goal is to increase transparency, protect the rights of all parties involved, and to provide better evidence for any police investigation, both for the citizens and the officers. The bill also calls for a study on the use of body worn cameras and the establishment of a task force to provide recommendations on community policing.
Finally, I believe we must end taxation by citation. In our home state of Missouri, we saw violations run rampant as authorities in Ferguson frequently saw residents as merely "sources of revenue". Officers often competed to see who could write the most citations in a single traffic stop. Police officers from all ranks said revenue generation is stressed heavily in the department, and it came from city leadership. This isn’t the way things should be. That’s why I’m working to change this.
The Fair Justice Act, a bill I have proposed, would bar a municipality from exceeding 30% of its general revenue from traffic tickets and fines. Funds exceeding the 30% cap go into a state fund for community policing efforts. It would require each state to pass its own law capping traffic fines at 30% within a year after enactment. The Missouri threshold is currently 30%. A state bill has been proposed to lower it to 10%. Each municipality must provide an accounting of traffic fines to the appropriate state office on an annual basis. The bill would also bar local law enforcement agencies from issuing directives that would allow the agency to issue tickets based on motivations of revenue rather than motivations of public safety.
And make no mistake about it, most police officers I know would support this law. Most police officers believe they shouldn't be used as cash registers. Look, police officers want to protect our neighborhoods and keep the peace. They need to be out there keeping the roads safe; stopping robberies, burglaries, and assaults; and investigating serious crimes.
Let’s create a world where our Constitutional liberties are preserved, our streets are safe, and all our police officers protect and serve our community.