Senate Republicans Introduce Police Reform Legislation
U.S. Congress

Senate Republicans Introduce Police Reform Legislation

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Senate Republicans unveiled a police reform bill on Wednesday that aims to change policing procedures and beef up accountability, the latest effort by Congress to overhaul policing in response to nationwide protest and pressure following the death of George Floyd three weeks ago.

The bill, dubbed the Justice Act (Just and Unifying Solutions To Invigorate Communities Everywhere) includes incentives for police departments to ban the use of chokeholds by tying funding to whether departments have prohibited the practice “except when deadly force is authorized,” provide federal funding for additional training on alternatives use of forces and ramp up data collection to track officer’s use of force results in death or serious harm that would be named the “George Floyd and Walter Scott Notification Act.”

It also establishes the Breonna Taylor Notification Act that requires law enforcement agencies to send the Attorney General reports to track “no-knock” warrants, provides emergency grants for body cameras, increases penalties for falsifying police reports, making lynching a federal hate crime and creates a Commission on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys that would provide a report on conditions that affect African American men, such as education, health care, and the criminal justice system.

 

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Spearheaded by Senator Tim Scott (R-SC), the 106-page bill said the legislation would create as a bridge of greater safety between communities of color and police.

“Too often we’re having a discussion in this nation, about are you supporting the law enforcement community or are you supporting communities of color. This is a false binary choice,” Scott said at a news conference unveiling his bill Wednesday. “The answer to the question of which side you support, it is ‘I support America.’ And if you support America, you support restoring the confidence that communities of color have in institutions of authority. You support America, that means you know that the overwhelming number of officers in this nation want to do their job, go home to their family. It is not a binary choice

The bill comes a day after President Trump signed an executive order that directs police departments across the country to adopt new standards for the use of force. Titled “Safe Policing for Safe Communities, the order consists of three key components — a national database to track police history of misconduct, ban the use of chokeholds except when an officer life is in danger, and provide more resources for co-responders to include social workers and individuals trained in mental health issues to help officers respond to non-violent calls.

The White House on Wednesday threw its support behind Scott bill, saying it “fully” backs “every element of it.”

Last week, the House Democrats, led by the Congressional Black Caucus unveiled a comprehensive sweeping national proposed package. The Democratic bill dubbed the “Justice in Policing Act of 2020,” seeks to hold police departments accountable, end the use of police chokeholds, create a national database to track officers with a record of misconduct, and outline ways for law enforcement to change their tactics across the country. It also would overhaul qualified immunity and end the use of no-knock warrants in drug cases. 

The House Judiciary Committee is currently marking up the House police reform bill Wednesday afternoon before bringing it to a full House vote likely next week.

Scott, the chamber’s lone black GOP lawmaker acknowledged that there are similarities in his bill and the House Democrats proposal such as interest in tackling the issues of police officers using the chokehold method as use of force, requiring more data from police departments as well as making lynching a federal crime. 

However, the measure does not include a provision to eliminate “qualified immunity”, a legal mechanism that protects police from being sued if accused of misconduct. This issue is considered a central component of the House Democrats’ bill. Both the Republicans and the president are opposed to revising qualified immunity, considering the issue a “non-starter,” and said they wouldn’t support any reform bill if the measure was included. 

Scott called the removal of qualified immunity a “poison pill” in the House police reform proposal, but said he along with his fellow GOP colleagues are open to hearing alternatives methods with Democrats on holding police officers accountable.

“The question is, can we get bipartisan support?” Scott said. “The only way we get to a place where we have a law is to work with our friends on the other side,” Scott said. “We’re willing to have that conversation. There are things that I believe our conference will not support, but they will all support a conversation.”

He added, “if we don’t have the votes on a motion to proceed, that means that politics is more important than restoring confidence in communities of color in the institutions of authority.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced shortly after the unveil that he will bring the proposal for a procedural vote next week. 60 votes are needed to start a formal debate on the bill to go forward. He encouraged Senate Democrats to back the legislation rather than “just sparring back and forth.”

“Senator Scott has made it possible for those of us in the Senate Republican conference, who are not African American to understand that this problem still exists,” McConnell said. “What I’m announcing today is after we do two circuit judges who are queued up either this week or early next week, we’re going to turn to the Scott bill. I’m going to file cloture on the motion to proceed, and our Democratic friends if they want to make a law, and not just make a point. I hope they’ll join us in getting on the bill and trying to move forward in the way the Senate does move forward when it’s trying to actually get an outcome. If we don’t have the votes on a motion to proceed, that means that politics is more important than restoring confidence in communities of color.”

Democrats from both chambers meanwhile have criticized the GOP bill, argued that the measure does not go far enough in addressing sweeping change demanded by experts and activists. 

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) on the Senate floor said the bill needs “dramatic improvement.”

“The Senate Republican proposal on policing does not rise to the moment,” Schumer said. “As we continue to review the Republican legislation. I will be talking to my caucus about the best way to strengthen it. This bill will need dramatic improvement. The question is whether legislation will bring the change we so desperately need or fail to make those necessary changes, fail to stop more black Americans from dying at the hands of police. The Republican bill has a long way to go to meet this moment.”

“Any final product must be strong and must make real and lasting changes,” Schumer added. “The real challenge is whether Senate Republicans will be able to step up to the plate and rise to the moment and vote for a bill that actually solves the problem. We, Democrats, are going to try to get them there. It’s important that we get this right.”

Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), who introduced the House Democratic bill, told reporters that Scott’s bill, despite not have read it removes the “teeth out of some of our proposals,” but shows based on seeing the “toplines” that there “might be room to work together.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) similarly criticized the bill, calling it “inadequate” compared to the Democrats’ proposal.

“House Democrats hope to work in a bipartisan way to pass legislation that creates meaningful change to end the epidemic of racial injustice and police brutality in America,” Pelosi said in a statement. “The Senate proposal of studies and reporting without transparency and accountability is inadequate. The Senate’s so-called Justice Act is not action.”

Members of both parties are hoping to get a bill to the president’s desk before the July 4 recess.

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Mona Salama