There is a critical challenge facing our efforts to reduce crime and improve police-community relations. There is no doubt that law enforcement agencies have made tremendous progress in reducing violent crime. This is particularly true in Black communities.
Unfortunately, community efforts to live up to their responsibility in the endeavor to secure their neighborhoods in collaboration with the police are jeopardized by the shocking incidents of excessive and often deadly force by police against unarmed and innocent Blacks.
To be successful, police departments need the trust, confidence and cooperation of communities that endure the highest rates of violent crime and therefore have the greatest need of effective policing. This partnership won't happen if these communities fear the criminals and the police.
I know this problem firsthand. Eighteen months ago in my district, the Sixth Congressional District located in Queens, New York, three undercover detectives fired 50 bullets at a car carrying three unarmed and innocent young Black men. Sean Bell was killed on what was supposed to be his wedding day. The two others, Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, were seriously wounded.
In a matter of seconds, years of hard work by my office, other elected officials, clergy, civic groups, youth organizations, and the local police precincts, to improve police-community relations was undermined.
The acquittal of all charges against the officers in this case further fractured the community's confidence in the justice system. The verdict reinforces a widespread perception that the justice system's inability or unwillingness to hold police officers accountable encourages other officers to act in a similar way against citizens of color.
The Congressional Black Caucus supports the Bell family's demand for a federal investigation into the possible violation of the victims' civil rights. While the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and other federal agencies have begun such an investigation, we believe the Justice Department must go further.
The Bell shooting on that isolated street was not an isolated incident. It is now well-documented that Blacks and Latinos in New York are far more likely than Whites to be stopped, searched, frisked, arrested, issued summons, or subjected to the use of excessive force.
Unfortunately this pattern and these practices are not unique to New York City. Everywhere they occur, these incidents not only undermine community trust but also make the diligent, disciplined, often distinguished, efforts of the overwhelming majority of police officers all the more difficult because they deprive police of potential partners in stemming crime.
We believe the Justice Department should undertake a pattern and practice investigation of the New York City Police Department and other law enforcement agencies with histories of similar incidents. Beyond holding police officers and police departments accountable, well conducted pattern and practice investigations will help educate the American people and public policymakers about the extent and gravity of the twin problems of federal civil rights violations and policing that results in the excessive use of force against citizens of color across the nation. Perhaps this knowledge will make us all refuse to tolerate two-tiered law enforcement dictated by the color of one's skin.
U. S. Rep. Gregory W. Meek is a Democrat from New York.