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Some Republicans Rethinking Party's Traditional Stands On Crime, Policing


The families of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice will march tomorrow with activists in Washington, D.C., to call for an end to police violence. The refusal of grand juries to indict police in the deaths of Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and particularly Garner in Staten Island, New York, have sparked a big debate about race and policing. And there has been a surprising reaction from Republicans as the party of law and order rethinks its traditional stance on crime and policing. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Political reaction to the events in Ferguson, Missouri, split largely along party lines, with Republicans, as you'd expect, siding with the police. But there was a different reaction across party lines to the death of Eric Garner and the cell phone video of an unarmed man under arrest for selling loose cigarettes struggling to breathe.


PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I thought, how sad. You know, the verdict was hard to understand.

LIASSON: Former President George W. Bush spoke on CNN.


BUSH: I had been with Condi the other night, and we talked about this subject. And she just said, you just got to understand that there are a lot of black folks around that are just incredibly - are more and more distrusting of law enforcement, which is a shame because law enforcement's job is to protect everybody.

LIASSON: House Speaker John Boehner wouldn't rule out holding hearings on the incidents that he referred to as tragedies.


CONGRESSMAN JOHN BOEHNER: And I think the American people want to understand more of what the facts were. There are a lot of unanswered questions that Americans have about what really happened here. And was our system of justice handled properly?

LIASSON: Garner's death in particular brought out into the open a Republican conversation about criminal justice - one that's been going on behind the scenes for years. Rick Wilson is a Republican political consultant.

RICK WILSON: Republicans and conservatives have been having a long, internal discussion about this. Because, you know, being a law and order party was a nice political bump for us in the 1970s and '80s, but we're in a very different world now, and a lot of folks who have concerns about state power and about the application of state power on my side.

LIASSON: One Republican who's made criminal justice reform a kind of calling card is Rand Paul. A libertarian, Paul thinks police power can go too far and drug sentencing can be too harsh.


RAND PAUL: It's hard not to watch that video of him saying, I can't breathe, I can't breathe and not be horrified by it. But I think there's something bigger than just the individual circumstances.

LIASSON: Senator Paul was interviewed here on MSNBC.


PAUL: Some politician also had to direct the police to say, hey, we want you arresting people for selling a loose cigarette.

LIASSON: Was Senator Paul suggesting a rethink of the broken windows approach? That's the crime-fighting policy championed by conservatives since the 1980s that originally focused on urban disorder and police diplomacy. It's been opposed by the left, who say it's devolved into stop and frisk racial profiling.

Now Heather Mac Donald, an expert on urban policy at the conservative Manhattan Institute, worries that the right - reacting against big, intrusive government - will turn against it as well.

HEATHER MAC DONALD: I disagree with Rand Paul's generalization against enforcing quality-of-life arrests. This is something that is in high demand in poor communities who are desperate for public order on the street.

LIASSON: But other conservatives say it's events like the death of Eric Garner that put this kind of community policing at risk. Former Bush White House aide Pete Wayner says you can't keep a city safe if minority communities think there's a different standard for them.

PETE WAYNER: Community policing has worked. And that's the kind of thing that people who are pro-police - conservatives, Republicans - they ought to support. If you get too many more incidents like what happened in Staten Island, then what's going to happen is that there is going to be an erosion of support and respect for the police. And that's not good.

LIASSON: That sounds remarkably similar to what you hear from Democrats, who say minority communities have a right to safe neighborhoods and equal treatment under the law. The politics of law and order has shifted a lot in the last generation as Democrats moved to the center on these issues and as crime rates plummeted. New York City, where Rick Wilson used to work for Rudy Giuliani, went from 3,000 murders a year to a couple hundred today.

WILSON: I think we're at a point now where both sides of the ideological spectrum recognize that criminal justice reform has got a role to play in the national dialogue. Neither side has a monopoly on the crime issue anymore.

LIASSON: They come at the issue of community policing from completely different perspectives, but both Republicans and Democrats want to make changes in the way police interact with minority neighborhoods. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.