Are police relations the top civil rights cause?

As cities continue to see protests over the deaths of black men apparently at the hands of police, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland said police-community relations is "the civil rights cause for this generation, no doubt about it."

Cummings was one of the community leaders in Baltimore Saturday where a day of peaceful protests eventually turned violent. Members of the community there are still angry over the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died a week ago while in police custody.

After thousands marched toward city hall, some protesters began smashing police cars and the windows of businesses and police cars and throwing cans, bottles and trash cans at police and storefronts. Baseball fans at the Orioles-Red Sox game in Camden Yards were delayed from leaving to avoid some of the mounting violence. At least five officers were injured and 12 people were arrested.

"A lot of people are very, very frustrated as to trying to figure out what happened here and its very upsetting," Cummings said in an interview on "Face the Nation" in reference go Gray's death. But he said he lauded the citizens of Baltimore for the mostly-restrained protests.

"I was here all day and it was very peaceful all day," he said. "Then at the end there were a few people who said, 'We're going to turn this city down, we're gonna close it down,' and then next thing you know we had a few people, mainly from out of town, to come and to start beating up on police cars and throwing all kinds of projectiles."

"The fact is that for the most part it could have been worse," he added, saying that many community leaders were in the crowd asking people not to be violent. Along with Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, Cummings went on the air to ask people to go home and to urge their relatives at the protests to do so as well.

So far Cummings said he's been satisfied with the way the chief of police and mayor have handled the case.

"They're doing the best they can under the circumstances," he said. But members of Maryland's congressional delegation have also asked the federal government to conduct a civil rights investigation, which he said they have agreed to do.

"This is a significant moment," Cummings said. "If we don't correct this now it will only get worse."

Cummings attributed the renewed attention on police-community relations to the rise in cell phone cameras. In a separate interview, John Miller, the New York City Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence and Counterterrorism and a former CBS News correspondent, agreed.

"Incidents that might have happened, once they're recorded become much more of a flash point than just the story that wouldn't have ever left that particular city," he said. He also said that these incidents get much more attention because of the prevalence of cable TV.

"Between the cell phone cameras which capture the emotional moment or the brutal moment of an incident and the fact that it's played on endlessly over a period of days till the next one happens creates this false perception of an increase" in violent incidents between police and African American citizens, Miller said. He said there is a "little chicken and egg piece" as to whether there has been an actual uptick in incidents or just better documentation of the incidents themselves.

Overall, both Miller and New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton, who also appeared on "Face the Nation," said there has been a decrease in the number of arrests and detention and a decline in the prison population as crime has trended downward.

"We're losing, unfortunately, some of the good news, but each one of these events offers an opportunity to have more dialogue...for us to see each other better than we have in the past," ­Bratton said.

Miller advised police chiefs to start creating their relationships under nonstressful circumstances.

"If you start to try and develop those relations after some terrible event has happened and you're behind the eight ball that's a problem," Miller said. "I think if anything, if there's something good that comes out of all of these, police chiefs across America have to be saying, 'Let me do my outreach now, let me do more, let me do it better, and let me have those relationships in place.' Because when the phone rings at 3 o'clock in the morning, if that's the night you're exchanging business cards, you're lost already."

Bratton said that the NYPD investigation into the death of Eric Garner, the State Island man who died after being put in a chokehold by police, is on hold while the federal government finishes its civil rights investigation into the incident.

A grand jury declined to indict the police officer who used an apparent chokehold on Garner. Bratton said the NYPD is still reviewing the case for administrative policy procedure violations.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.