Democrats Prepare Police Reform Bills After George Floyd's Death

WCBS 880 Newsroom
June 04, 2020 - 10:31 am

    WASHINGTON (AP) — Congressional Democrats, powered by the Congressional Black Caucus, are preparing a sweeping package of police reforms as pressure builds on the federal government to respond to the death of George Floyd and others in law enforcement interactions.

    With the urgency of mass protests outside their doors, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are working furiously to draft what could become one of the most ambitious efforts in years to oversee the way law enforcement works. Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California, both former presidential candidates, are expected to announce a package in coming days, with a House bill coming soon.

    Both the Senate and House efforts are expected to include changes to police accountability laws, such as revising immunity provisions, and creating a database of police use-of-force incidents. Revamped training requirements are planned, too, among them a ban on the use of choke holds. Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has endorsed such a ban.

    “We have a moral moment in our country,” Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the CBC, said on a conference call Wednesday.

    Booker said a national database of police misconduct and use of force incidents would bring accountability.

    "It is very to hard to hold people accountable if you don't even know what they're doing and we have no national database that collects this important information that would give transparency into patterns and practice of police departments when it comes to the use of force," Booker told WCBS 880's Steve Scott on Thursday. "We have a challenge in America that officers that have serious misconduct can often leave one department in one city, one state, one community go to another one and start their careers anew."

    Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with murder in Floyd's death, had more than a dozen prior complaints filed against him and Booker believes such a database could have taken him off the streets before the Floyd incident.

    "If people know that officers have patterns of practice that violate community standards it gives activists and others the chance to hold not just those police officers accountable but elected officials accountable for allowing this to happen," Booker said.

    The proposal, says Booker, "is one part of a larger bill of common sense practices that would elevate policing in this country and improve trust in our communities and ensure there is safety and security in our communities."

    He also wants to see implicit racial bias and use of force training for officers.

    "There's no one thing that's going to solve all of these problems but a package of reforms on the national, state and local levels could begin to turn the culture of policing in this country and raise and elevate it such that we end the kind of tragedies that we see happening with regularity in the United States of America," Booker said. 

    The political stakes of any police reform effort are high, amplified in an election year by President Donald Trump’s “law and order” stance, including his threats to call in the U.S. military to clamp down on protesters. With mass unrest now entering a second week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sought to shift the national tone Wednesday by walking and talking with protesters outside the Capitol.

    The House is expected to vote by month's end. “We’ll be intense, proactive,” Pelosi said on MSNBC.

    With Democrats in the majority, the bills will almost certainly pass the House. But the outcome in the Senate is less certain. Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said the chamber would take a look at the issues, but he has not endorsed any particular legislation.

    Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, tweeted that his panel will conduct a hearing “to shine a bright light on the problems associated with Mr. Floyd’s death, with the goal of finding a better way forward for our nation.”

    But much like efforts to stem gun violence after mass shootings, the political momentum for changes to policing procedures could ebb as the protests and images of those who have died fade from public view. For example, a long-sought federal anti-lynching bill has languished in Congress.

    “Words of kindness and grace are essential to America, but they’re not enough right now,” Booker said during a Senate floor speech this week. “It’s on us in this body to do something to change the law.”

    “This is just one thing we can do,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who is introducing a bill in the Senate similar to one in the House that seeks to make choke-hold suffocation a federal crime. “This is a moment that demands leadership, it demands a reckoning.”

    Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, is considering an upcoming defense bill provision that would ban the transfer of military equipment, including armor and tanks, to police and sheriff’s departments.

    Lawmakers are looking at proposing other measures. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., is proposing a national commission on the status of young black men and boys and Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., has legislation to establish a national truth and reconciliation commission on black Americans.

    It's not clear whether law enforcement will back the changes. Many of the efforts will likely be supported by other minority lawmakers.

    Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the Congressional Asian Pacific Caucus, convened the call Wednesday with the leaders of the Black, Hispanic and Native American caucuses. “We stand together,” she said.

    Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich., is among several members of the black caucus who will be attending memorial or funeral services for Floyd on Thursday in Minnesota and Texas. She acknowledged the opposition the bills will likely face, but called on fellow lawmakers to consider the option of doing nothing.

    “It’s very hard to watch that video and go back in your corner,” Lawrence said. contributed to this report

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