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In wake of Ferguson shooting, progressives demand federal police czar

In the eyes of many progressives and civil rights advocates, the police shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri earlier this month was a tragic and familiar story: the latest example of the law enforcement community's prejudiced administration of justice.

Now, a group of notables and activists, joined by several members of the Congressional Black Caucus, are demanding the establishment of a federal police "czar," employed by the Justice Department, to oversee local law enforcement practices and help prevent racial bias in policing.

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"In cities across America, local law enforcement units too often treat low-income neighborhoods populated by African Americans and Latinos as if they are military combat zones instead of communities where people strive to live, learn, work, play and pray in peace and harmony," explained a letter to President Obama posted as an advertisement in Monday's Washington Post.

The letter was signed by more than 100 people, including CBC Chairwoman Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, and Jim Wallis, the president of Sojourners, a left-leaning faith-based organization.

Brown is "is only the latest in a long list of black men and boys who have died under eerily similar circumstances," the letter added. "The pattern is too obvious to be a coincidence and too frequent to be a mistake."

Among the reforms championed in the letter is the establishment of a czar "tasked with promoting the professionalization of local law enforcement, monitoring egregious law enforcement activities, and adjudicating suspicious actions of local law enforcement agencies that receive federal funding."

The letter called on law enforcement groups to prioritize diversity in hiring decisions and make a better effort to engage with the communities they serve, saying a "lack of familiarity breeds lack of understanding and increased opportunities for conflict."

The letter also touched on a program conferring military-grade equipment and weaponry on local police departments. Critics of that program say the police response to racially charged protests in Ferguson, which featured cops in riot gear and Humvees, was a case study in excessive force.

"Deterring crime and protecting communities should not involve military weaponry," the letter said. "The Administration must suspend programs that transfer military equipment into the hands of local police departments and create guidelines that regulate and monitor the use of military equipment that has already been distributed."

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The president announced a thorough review of that program in the wake of the Ferguson shooting, but he did not immediately move to suspend it.

Administration officials, led by Attorney General Eric Holder, have tried to speak to the grievances of protesters who flooded the streets in Ferguson and other communities around the country after Brown's death.

"I am the attorney general of the United States," Holder said last week during an appearance at a Missouri community college. "But I am also a black man."

He recalled his own brushes with law enforcement officers that he felt were racially profiling him. "I understand that mistrust," he said.

Of course, the officer who shot and killed Brown, Darren Wilson, has his own defenders. They argue the law enforcement community, with rare exceptions, administers justice fairly, and that the police are being unfairly maligned by a rush to judgment in this case.

A pair of fundraising drives on the website have raised almost $400,000 from over 9,000 individual donors to support Wilson and help defer any costs he incurs from the incident, like legal fees or relocation expenses.

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