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What Congress is proposing to do about police reform

Both houses of Congress propose creating a national database to track police misconduct. There was less agreement on other provisions like ending qualified immunity for police officers.

Rep. Karen Bass
Rep. Karen Bass speaking during the U.S. House Judiciary Committee hearing on "Policing Practices and Law Enforcement Accountability" on June 10.
Erin Schaff/Pool via REUTERS

In response to the police killing of George Floyd, House Democrats are set to vote on a comprehensive package of police legislation next week.

Their bill, The Justice in Policing Act of 2020, would in part ban chokeholds by the police, set up a national database for tracking police misconduct, and make it easier to pursue legal damages against police by ending “qualified immunity.”

Rep. Karen Bass of California, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus is leading the House’s attempt at police-reform. “A profession where you have the power to kill should be a profession where you have highly trained officers that are accountable to the public,” Bass said at a press conference last week. The bill would also bar certain types of “no-knock warrants” (which allow police to enter a property without notifying occupants), limit transfer of military hardware to police and distribute funds for mandatory bias training.

The bill does not go as far as some activists want. They have demanded redistribution of resources away from police departments. “We need to be funding more social workers, educators, and public health workers instead of funneling more money toward the police,” Kandace Montgomery and Miski Noor, members of Black Visions Collective in Minneapolis, wrote for Vox. 

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Bass has been critical of protestors’ demands, telling the Washington Post that “defund the police” is “probably one of the worst slogans ever.” Rather than heeding calls to shift money from police to social services, Bass proposed community organizations take advantage of grants.

Rep. Ilhan Omar
REUTERS/Erin Scott
Rep. Ilhan Omar
Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minneapolis, who represents the district where Floyd was killed, has called the proposed reforms, “dynamic, remarkable and unprecedented.” In addition to the House legislation, Omar is supportive of the Minneapolis City Council’s plan to dismantle the local police department and rebuild a new public safety agency. Omar said that currently, the Minneapolis Police Department leaves half of all homicide cases unsolved and has failed when it comes to testing rape kits — both reasons she believes it is time to try something else.

Senate bill

Senate Republicans, led by Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina — the only black Republican in the Senate — plan to unveil their reform bill on Wednesday. Sources have told Axios that the Senate bill has some similar elements to the House bill, including creating a national database of police officers accused of misconduct.

The bill may also propose limiting the use of chokeholds by limiting federal grants to departments that continue to approve of the practice, make lynching a federal crime (legislation the House passed in January of last year), provide new funding for body cameras and offer new funding for de-escalation training.

Scott has said that Republicans are unwilling to negotiate on ending qualified immunity and it will likely not be included in the Senate bill, calling any such provision a “poison pill.”

Qualified immunity shields individual government officials like police from liability claims, essentially making it impossible to sue individual officers. Changes to qualified immunity this Congress were first proposed by Rep. Justin Amash, Libertarian of Michigan, along with Rep. Ayanna Pressley, Democrat of Massachusetts. Only one Republican, Rep. Tom McClintock of California, signed onto that bill before it was added to Democrats’ larger package.

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On CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Scott also said that “de-certification” of officers who have committed misconduct — revoking an officer’s license to practice in a state — is out of the question, since he believes law enforcement unions would not be supportive.

Senate Republicans have said it is unlikely that they will take up the bill before their upcoming two-week July 4 recess. That means that senators would vote on legislation after July 20.

“If the House is voting next week — I think it is — I think us waiting a month before we vote is a bad decision,” Scott told reporters on Monday night. In addition to the legislation, President Donald Trump is set to announce an executive order today on policing Tuesday, which will offer modest police policy changes supported by police unions, such as a database for officers with multiple instances of misconduct.