Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), the incoming chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, considers getting criminal justice reforms that would take police shooting investigations out of the hands of local prosecutors a top priority this congressional session, he told The Hill in an interview last week. He doesn't have a lot of details though.
"There is a common bond between law enforcement officers and prosecutors. It's natural," Butterfield said last week during a sit-down interview in his Capitol Hill office.
"So when there's a police shooting … I am probably going to advocate some type of special prosecutor, randomly selected, to handle these cases. Appointed by whom? I don't know. Should it be the chief justice? Should it be the governor? You know, the jury's still out on that. But we've got to look at not using the local hometown prosecutor in cases involving police shootings."
The push arrives as a growing number of Democrats — and a handful of Republicans — are urging an overhaul of the nation's criminal justice system in the wake of the Ferguson shooting and several other prominent incidents involving civilian deaths at the hands of police in recent months.
Butterfield's interest in the issue is encouraging but the lack of details isn't. Questionable use of force by police is not an issue that first cropped up last month or last August; it's been an issue for years. While federal legislators are still contemplating action, state lawmakers around the country, most notably in Missouri, are pushing similar ideas, and Butterfield's staff could study those in putting together federal legislation.
Butterfield says he'll also be pushing for more funding for body cameras, also a good move to combat police misconduct. Butterfield and his staff can find other ideas to combat police misconduct here. Butterfield mentioned a smattering of other criminal justice related reforms, some, like better public defenders and fairer sentencing and drug laws, more hopeful than others, like more training for cops, something police departments promise every time a questionable police action is in the news.
How much Butterfield and the CBC will accomplish in terms of criminal justice and police reforms remains to be seen. Republican control of Congress is not insurmountable given the small but growing group of Republican members of Congress who say, and show, they're interested in civil liberties. But to be successful the members of the CBC will also have to look inward. While The Hill mentioned attempts to limit the transfer of military equipment to local police departments as one component of effective reform, Butterfield, like several other members of the CBC, voted against an amendment in June that would have done just that.