May, which included National Police Week, was a busy month on Capitol Hill, with lawmakers focused on a range of issues, including the federal budget, Iran sanctions and trade. In the wake of recent high-profile incidents in both Baltimore, Maryland, and North Charleston, South Carolina, criminal justice issues have remained at the forefront of national attention — and lawmakers are increasingly weighing in on police and community relations matters, including police militarization and the use of body-worn cameras (BWCs).
Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) spoke on May 1 about a national crisis in the relations between law enforcement and minority communities and expressed support for local police departments using federal grant money to purchase BWCs. Representative Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who represents the city of Baltimore, described police and community relations as “the civil rights cause for this generation” and stated that BWCs offer “protection for the police and the public.”
Presidential candidates have started to weigh in on law enforcement issues. Former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton unveiled a number of criminal justice reforms during a speech in late April. In her remarks, she called for an end to the “era of mass incarceration” and said federal funds should not be used “to buy weapons of war that have no place on our streets.” She further stated that every police department in the country should have BWCs to record interactions between officers and the community.
Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a Republican presidential candidate and a persistent voice for sentencing reform, is the lead co-sponsor on legislation introduced earlier this year (S. 877, the Police Creating Accountability by Making Effective Recording Available Act of 2015 [Police CAMERA Act]) that is designed to encourage the use of BWCs by establishing a pilot grant program to assist law enforcement agencies in purchasing BWCs for officers. During their visit to D.C. for National Police Week, PORAC President Mike Durant and Vice President Brent Meyer met with the offices of Senators Paul and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), the co-sponsors of the Police CAMERA Act, to discuss PORAC’s position on BWCs.
Blue Alert and Bulletproof Vest Bills Pass Senate
The Senate (on April 30) and House (on May 12) passed by voice vote the Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu National Blue Alert Act (S. 665/H.R. 1269), which would create a nationwide Blue Alert system (modeled after the Amber Alert system for missing children) to apprehend violent criminals who have injured or killed police officers. The legislation, introduced by Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and former sheriff/Representative David Reichert (R-Wash.) in their respective chambers, would also initiate alerts when imminent or credible threats of harm are made against law enforcement officers. Senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), as well as Representatives Judy Chu (D-27th District, Calif.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-19th District, Calif.) co-sponsored the legislation, which will now head to the White House, where President Obama is expected to sign the bill into law.
On May 6, the Senate passed the bipartisan Bulletproof Vest Partnership Grant Program Reauthorization Act of 2015 (S. 125) to amend the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, extending through fiscal year 2020 the authorization of the Bulletproof Vest Partnership Grant Program, which is run by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. No related House bill has been introduced at this time.
PORAC supports these bills and looks forward to continuing its work with Congress to enact legislation that enhances the safety of the law enforcement community.
Law Enforcement Equipment
On May 7, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) introduced legislation to reform federal programs that direct equipment and funding to local police departments. S. 1245, the Protecting Communities and Police Act, would make a number of changes in the oversight and transparency of these programs and establish a task force to assist federal officials in determining whether certain equipment is appropriate for use by law enforcement. PORAC is reviewing and will closely monitor the legislation.
Upcoming Congressional Hearings
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Ranking Member John Conyers (D-Mich.) announced that they would hold a hearing on May 19 titled “Policing Strategies for the 21st Century” to “examine police accountability, aggression toward law enforcement, public safety concerns related to these issues, and solutions to address these problems.”
The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism will also hold a hearing on May 19, titled “Body Cameras: Can Technology Increase Protection for Law Enforcement Officers and the Public?”. The hearing is expected to examine the use of BWCs by law enforcement officers, as well as related data retention and privacy issues. Senator Tim Scott (R-S.C.) requested the hearing following the death of Walter Scott (no relation) in North Charleston, South Carolina. Senator Scott stated that ideally, “legislation or a grant apparatus that provides some resources for body cameras for those agencies that can ill afford it” would emerge after the hearing. PORAC met with Senator Scott and Subcommittee Chairman Lindsey Graham’s (R-S.C.) offices to discuss PORAC’s position on BWCs several days before the hearing.
Department of Justice Updates
Attorney General Loretta Lynch: Loretta Lynch, the former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, was sworn in as the 83rd Attorney General of the United States on April 27. Ms. Lynch’s first day as Attorney General forced her to confront civil unrest and protests in Baltimore following the funeral of Freddie Gray. In her first trip as Attorney General, she visited the city to meet with local leaders, including the Baltimore Police Department Commissioner and line officers. When meeting with police officers, Ms. Lynch thanked them for their work, stating, “You have picked a noble profession; you have picked a hard profession; but you have picked one of the best professions out there today, because you have picked the one that lets you go out there every day and say, ‘I’m going to help somebody.’”
As she leads the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Ms. Lynch’s other priorities will likely include cybersecurity, combating human trafficking, and victims’ rights. She also will likely focus on improving police morale and improving relations between police and communities.
COPS Office in focus: The Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) within DOJ is responsible for supporting the community policing efforts of state and local law enforcement agencies and is tasked with advancing community policing nationwide. Importantly, the COPS Office administers several grant programs that provide critical law enforcement support. To date, the COPS Office has invested more than $14 billion to fund the hiring of more than 125,000 officers and deputies and provides a range of resources to support community policing activities.
Since November 2013, the COPS Office has been led by Ronald L. Davis. Prior to his appointment, Director Davis served eight years as the Chief of Police for the City of East Palo Alto, and before that he served with the Oakland Police Department for 20 years. In its last two D.C. fly-ins, PORAC has had productive meetings with the COPS Office, including one meeting with Director Davis himself.
New Grant Program for Body-Worn Cameras: On May 1, the DOJ announced a $20 million body-worn camera pilot partnership program to assist local law enforcement organizations in purchasing BWCs for law enforcement officers. The program includes $17 million in competitive grants for the purchase of BWCs, $2 million for training and technical assistance and $1 million for the development of evaluation tools to study best practices. Applications are due by June 16, and more information on the grant program can be found at https://www.bja.gov/funding.aspx.
Other Grant Program Applications and Deadlines
Byrne JAG: The Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program, administered by the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), is the leading source of funding for local jurisdictions and is used to support law enforcement, prosecution, indigent defense, courts, crime prevention and education, corrections, drug treatment and enforcement, planning, evaluation, technology improvement, and crime victim and witness initiatives. The Fiscal Year 2015 State Solicitation application is currently available and is due on June 16. The Local Solicitations application was not yet available at the time of this issue’s publication.
COPS: COPS grants are awarded to state, local, territory, and tribal law enforcement agencies. Types of grants include the Coordinated Tribal Assistance Solicitation (CTAS), the COPS Hiring Program (CHP) and Community Policing Development (CPD). These grants can assist with technical training, the development of policing strategies, applied research, guidebooks, the hiring of officers (both new and previously laid-off officers), and the maintenance of officers scheduled to be laid off. CHP and CPD materials are now available to review from the COPS Office website, and solicitations will open in mid-May.