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Rep. Annie Kuster: Moving toward justice for all

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Washington, D.C., June 29, 2020 | By Rep. Annie Kuster

Over the past weeks, Granite Staters and Americans of all backgrounds have been compelled to examine their beliefs about police brutality and institutional racism. The unconscionable murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, caught on video for all the world to see, sparked a long-overdue national conversation about the dangers and fears people of color live with every day. The account of Breonna Taylor’s tragic killing, which happened while she was sleeping in her own bed, made clear that no place is truly safe for people of color. This moment demands urgent action from leaders at all levels of government.

Some may wonder if police brutality even exists here in New Hampshire. Sadly, in recent weeks, I have heard personal accounts of racial bias and misconduct right here in the Granite State, including one case so egregious that a young man was hospitalized following the encounter. Whether it’s groundless traffic stops or more severe misconduct with excessive use of force – it’s all wrong. While New Hampshire can be proud of the training and performance of the vast majority of law enforcement, even here in the Granite State, investigations continue into troublesome reports of racial bias in some communities.

At a time when Americans would normally head to the beach or lake, many are gathering in communities large and small to demand justice. This national reckoning is long overdue. Police violence is the sixth-leading cause of death for young black men in the United States. One hundred out of every 100,000 Black men and boys will die at the hands of law enforcement, more than double the rate for white men and boys. This informs the justified sense of fear people of color feel when they see police lights in the rearview mirror.

Last week, the House of Representatives passed the Justice in Policing Act, legislation I helped introduce to improve the training of law enforcement officers, and hold bad police officers accountable. Law enforcement officers face demanding situations every day. We must provide them with the training they need to effectively manage these situations. The Justice in Policing Act accomplishes this through the creation of a national set of best practices in policing to empower officers with the skills they need to keep all Americans safe. The bill also incentivizes police departments to help officers confront unintentional bias through education to prevent racial profiling in policing and creates a duty to intervene for law enforcement officers who witness their colleagues’ unlawful or discriminatory conduct.

Too often when law enforcement officers violate the public trust, there is no accountability. Despite the countless acts of police brutality, the legal standard of “willful misconduct” discourages prosecutors from bringing charges against cops that violate the law. The Justice in Policing Act empowers prosecutors to hold officers accountable for their bad conduct by changing the standard to “reckless misconduct or knowing disregard,” which will ensure officers are answerable for their actions if they break the law. The bill also creates a national registry on police misconduct to prevent bad officers from floating between departments.

One of the most disturbing parts of the response to protests around the country has been the force used by law enforcement against protestors. Images of officers dressed in riot and military equipment being deployed on American streets seem to belong in autocratic nations, not the world’s most vibrant democracy. We should embrace peaceful protest and the Justice in Policing Act is a step toward heading the call of those in New Hampshire and across the nation who are working to make real and necessary change in our country. Police brutality is a symptom of deeper American challenges with race. For most of American history, Black people were enslaved or subject to the oppressive Jim Crow-era policies. Congress must pass legislation to correct these historical wrongs.

Today, after consultation with police and civil rights leaders, I am releasing a Justice For All Agenda which includes policies that promote economic opportunity for communities of color, enacts reforms that strengthen our public education system, expands access to homeownership, and puts a stop to the voter suppression tactics that make it more difficult for Americans of color to vote. No bill can erase America’s history of injustice, but policymakers can improve the future by implementing legislation to help our country live up to its ideals.

(Congresswoman Annie Kuster represents the 2nd Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.)