Protests Spur Democrats’ Drive to Police the Police Departments

Democrats in both chambers of Congress are proposing legislation that would change police tactics, data collection, and reporting requirements, conditions on federal funding to state and local police departments, and legal recourse for violations of constitutional rights.

“Police accountability has become a rainbow movement, reflecting the wonderful diversity of our nation and the world,” Congressional Black Caucus Chair Karen Bass (D-Calif.) said during a press conference. “The power of this movement will help move Congress to act to pass legislation that not only holds police accountable and increases transparency, but assists police departments to change the culture.”

The legislation follows days of nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed, restrained black man, after a Minneapolis policeman knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes. The outrage in some cities has prompted a broader push to “defund the police,” a step both President Donald Trump and his presumptive Democratic challenger in November, former Vice President Joe Biden, reject.

“There won’t be defunding,” Trump said at an event with police officers Monday, “There won’t be any dismantling of the police.”

Biden Opposes Defunding Police, Rejecting Trump’s Claims

The Democrats’ bill l has more than 200 cosponsors across both chambers, with no Republicans signing on.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters June 2 that police reform was something the Senate would “need to take a look at,” but offered no concrete ideas or timeline.

“There may be a role for Congress to play in this, as well, and we’ll be talking to our colleagues about what, if anything, is appropriate for us to do in the wake of what’s going on,” he said.

Chances for passage will hinge on whether the House can sidestep opposition in the GOP-controlled Senate and whether, absent a stand-alone bill, it can be attached to other legislation. Campaigning for the November elections has constrained a congressional calendar already hampered by social distancing to address the coronavirus pandemic.

Joseph Prezioso / AFP via Getty Images
Police stand by as people march to call for Police Department overhaul in Boston on June 7, 2020. – Protests broke out across the U.S. following George Floyd’s death after a Minneapolis policeman knelt on his neck May 25.

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What it Does

Congress, given local control of police departments, has limited options.

“We are the Congress. And what we’re doing here today is our role,” Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.), said.

The bill would create new standards for federal law enforcement officers, add obligations and tools for the Justice Department, and attach strings to federal funding for state and local law enforcement departments.

Federal law enforcement officers would no longer be able to use chokeholds, no-knock warrants, or carotid holds—the type of pressure used on Floyd in Minnesota. Federal grants would be conditioned on state and local law enforcement agencies’ establishing the same use of force standard, according to a summary of the bill.

The measure would create a national use-of-force standard to address interpretations of what is “reasonable” in cases involving police misconduct and excessive use of force, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) told reporters at the press conference Monday.

“As we all know we can reason away just about anything,” said Harris, a former prosecutor who’s mentioned as a potential running mate for Biden. “The appropriate and fair question to ask is, ‘Was it necessary?’”

The bill would also require reporting data on use of force by race, sex, disability, religion, and age. The Department of Justice Civil Rights Division would gain subpoena power to aid investigations when data suggests problematic patterns or practices among police departments. It would also create a grants for state attorneys general to conduct independent investigations into police departments.

Victims or their relatives would have the right to recover damages when officers violate their constitutional rights, a move Attorney General Bill Barr opposes, he said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation”.

What’s Next

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) will call members back to Washington “as soon as this legislation is ready to hit the floor” and he expects it will pass, he said. Hoyer was skeptical about its chances of passing the Senate.

“Sadly, I am not confident that a body that has not been able to pass the Emmett Till Lynching Bill will pass this bill. I hope so,” Hoyer said, referencing the Emmett Till Antilynching Act (H.R. 35).

“Senate Democrats are gonna fight like hell to make this a reality,” Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said.

Americans must call on McConnell to put the bill on the Senate floor for debate and a vote before July, Schumer said.

“Some Senate Republicans have acknowledged the egregious wrongs, but few have expressed the need for floor action,” he said. “Too many have remained silent.”

Just a few years ago paid family and sick leave seemed impossible, but the coronavirus response made them happen because the “times called for it,” Blunt Rochester said.

“Now is the time,” for police reform she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Shaun Courtney in Washington at scourtney@bgov.com

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