Lawmakers Rip Ferguson Police Response to Protesters

(ABC News)

Since protests erupted over the death of Michael Brown, the 18-year-old African American man shot to death by a Caucasian police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, police clad in riot gear have unleashed tear gas and smoke bombs to try to control demonstrators.

The law enforcement response to the protest has been labeled overly combative, even militaristic - and lawmakers are now concerned that the situation is emblematic of a more pervasive problem.

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Reps. John Conyers, D-Mich, Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., have officially called for Congressional hearings to examine "the extensive militarization of state and local police."

In a letter to Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlate, R-Va., they noted: "Mr. Brown's killing highlights what appears to be a continuing pattern of the use of deadly force by police against unarmed African Americans in cities around the nation."

Hearings could address what the congressmen described as "long-simmering racial tensions between an overwhelmingly white police force and a majority African-American population."

"Why do local police dress in military-style uniforms and body armor…?" they wrote. "At best, confronting demonstrators with this show of force is a sign of poor judgment. In all likelihood, the decision to adopt a military posture only served to aggravate an already tense situation…"

Meanwhile, Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Georgia., announced plans to introduce a bill restricting the transfer of surplus equipment from the military to police offices through a controversial Defense Department program. He reportedly calls the bill the "Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act."

Some lawmakers have even suggested that police in Ferguson resembled soldiers in war-torn regions abroad, rather than officers tasked with keeping peace.

"Instead of being respected as citizens of this nation who have the right to vocally oppose what they believe is mistreatment [protesters] were met with tear gas, rubber bullets, and police equipped as though they are militia in a war zone," said Congressional Black Caucus Chair Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio. "What I saw last night reminded me of violent responses to uprisings in countries around the world, not here in my own backyard. We are supposed to be better than that."

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., joined the chorus:

Democrats aren't the only ones railing against perceived police brutality.

Tea Party favorite Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., penned an oped in Time Magazine decrying a "systemic problem with today's law enforcement:"

If I had been told to get out of the street as a teenager, there would have been a distinct possibility that I might have smarted off. But, I wouldn't have expected to be shot.

The outrage in Ferguson is understandable-though there is never an excuse for rioting or looting. There is a legitimate role for the police to keep the peace, but there should be a difference between a police response and a military response.

… Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts by using federal dollars to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies-where police departments compete to acquire military gear that goes far beyond what most of Americans think of as law enforcement.

Some lawmakers went further, drawing parallels between the police response to Ferguson protesters and law enforcement treatment of civil rights advocates.

"The tragic killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown and the events that have transpired since the shooting in Ferguson are reminiscent of the violent altercations that took place during the Civil Rights Movement. Countless African Americans endured unwarranted hostility and excessive force from law enforcement while exercising their right to peaceful assembly and civil resistance," said Rep. Conyers, a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. "It is a great travesty to find ourselves again witnessing the blatant violation of our right to peaceably assemble."

Still others took to social media to voice their outrage.

One lawmaker, however, was more frustrated by the protesters than the law enforcement response.

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, stirred controversy today when suggested all protesters appeared to be of the same "continental origin."

"This idea of no racial profiling - I've seen the video. It looks to me like you don't need to bother with that particular factor because they all appear of a single origin, I should say, a continental origin might be the way to phrase that," King said during an interview with Newsmax Friday morning. "Their hyper-intensity on that - I just reject race-based politics."

"There was an African American man who sent out a video … that called upon 'em all to settle down. He said, 'I'm getting tired of this, I'm tired of you burning our communities, my communities,' and essentially said, 'straighten up and fly right.' I thought that was a good message," King continued, adding that President Obama "call out to the community to settle down, and I'm not hearing that happen."

(Both the president and Michael Brown's parents have indeed pled for peace.) Following a national outcry, state troopers have supplanted local police to try to calm the situation.

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