Tamir Rice. Eric Garner. Philando Castile.
Those were just some of the names included in a looped silent video playing in the background of the Congressional Black Caucus’s Police Accountability Task Force roundtable Wednesday, as the powerful group of black lawmakers grapples with how Congress can respond to issues of racism and violence that have increasingly dominated headlines.
“We seem to be in this sort of space, whether it’s citizen-on-citizen, or it’s police-on-citizen, where race seems to be the connecting link to these [incidents] that are taking place,” Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, who led the roundtable, told BuzzFeed News. “You’re seeing them so much. You’re seeing the way interactions with police are being dealt with differently if you’re black or if you’re white.”
“You’re seeing situations where just everyday citizens are complaining because somebody’s in a swimming pool or someone’s sitting at a Starbucks or someone’s taking a nap in the student center. All of these things are, I think unhealthy, and we need to bring sort of light to them and bring a discussion about them and help people to understand what’s happening.”
Wednesday marked the task force’s first event, focused specifically on exploring “police and community relations” in the context of brutal encounters between people of color and police in recent years. Half a dozen members of the CBC attended the roundtable, in which a panel of three experts broadly discussed topics related to race and police and answered lawmakers’ questions. (BuzzFeed News also attended the event.)
But more than a question-and-answer session, the roundtable was part of a broader conversation about the role Congress has to play in helping mend the relations between police and their communities, whether it be funding research or other programs for police departments to participate in.
One of the topics that was heavily discussed was the need for police to build relationships with the communities they work in.
“Police need to be more in tune with the community,” Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott told BuzzFeed News after the event when asked what stood out to him. “If they’re just closer to the community, I think that’s the main thing. When they are totally detached, you run into problems.”
Missouri Rep. Lacy Clay brought up one recent incident in St. Louis during the roundtable in which a group of 10 black Washington University students were rounded up during a police investigation into a skipped bill at an iHop, only to be told by the restaurant that they were not the suspects. Clay called it a “total collapse of trust.”
As part of his response, Cedric Alexander, the deputy mayor of Rochester, New York, and one of the members of the panel, brought up Garner, who died in 2014 after he was held in a chokehold by police for selling loose cigarettes.
“Had those officers had some semblance of some relationship with him, I think we would have seen a different outcome,” Alexander said.
Texas Rep. Marc Veasey, who attended the event, told BuzzFeed News that he thinks it’s clear a lot of legislating around this area will be done at the state and local levels, but that Congress should pitch in as well.
“I don’t think there’s any question about that. ... But if we can help in areas like community policing and getting [the Department of Justice] to be more proactive and find them more money to be able to pay for things … I think it would go a long way.”
Members say they want to continue having discussions like these moving forward, including discussing the recent rise in stories of people calling the police on people of color who are going about their daily lives, like shopping at a CVS or selling bottled water.
“This is not like a one-shot deal,” Watson Coleman said. “There are different components of the community we want to talk to and then sort of put things together, and put our heads together after we have all of these conversations, so it will be going to be going on for a while.”