Republicans unveil ‘Justice Act’ aimed at policing reform, propose fast-track action
Senate Republicans unveiled their proposal Wednesday to reform law enforcement practices, including new accountability, training and deescalation measures, including incentives to limit controversial tactics like chokeholds, as protests and demands for change have raged across the country in the wake of two high-profile cases of black men being killed by police officers.
In introducing the bill, Sen. Tim Scott – the chamber’s lone African American Republican – who led the effort along with five of his Senate colleagues, called for lawmakers to abandon the argument that one is either for police officers or for Americans of color.
“Too often we’re having a discussion in this nation: Are you supporting law enforcement or communities of color? This is a false binary choice. The answer to the question is, ‘I support America. You support America. It is not a binary choice. This legislation encompasses that spirit,” Scott told reporters.
The Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, announced Wednesday that he is fast-tracking the legislation by using a procedural motion to try to start debate on the bill next week.
McConnell, whose own hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, was roiled by the death of an African American woman – Breonna Taylor – who was killed by police officers executing a no-knock warrant, said he was not in this for a political win.
“I want you to know we’re serious about making a law here,” the GOP leader insisted, and late, in a floor speech, said that he intended to allow amendments, a rare moment in the Senate these days.
The 106-page bill, called the the JUSTICE Act — Just and Unifying Solutions To Invigorate Communities Everywhere Act — does not include federal mandates to curb police use of force and other questionable practices, like chokeholds, as Democrats have included in a competing measure; rather, the legislation seeks to offer federal incentives for those departments that implement best practices and end controversial tactics and penalize those that do not.
For instance, in an effort to limit chokeholds, the legislation states that “if on the day before the first day of the fiscal year, the State or unit of local government does not have an agency-wide policy in place for each law enforcement agency of the State or unit of local government that prohibits the use of chokeholds except when deadly force is authorized,” those entities will not receive certain federal funds.
Republicans insisted that this monetary leverage was powerful and would effect change.© Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks during a news conference to announce that the Senate is considering police reform legislation, at the U.S. Capitol, June 17, 2020 in Washington, D.C.
“Certainly I think we achieve some of the same ends by our approach, frankly – if you think about the inability to have any grants, if your department has chokeholds, that frankly is, by default, a ban on chokeholds,” Scott told reporters, notably not ruling out stronger mandates that Democrats are seeking.
McConnell’s move to start debate next week will require bipartisan support, and though the Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer, said he opposes the GOP legislation as written, he signaled support for taking it up and working to make changes.
“We’re still reviewing it but, what’s clear is that the Senate Republican proposal on policing does not rise to the moment,” said Schumer, but he added, “I’m glad we’ll be turning to this subject next week.
Sen. Scott has often pointed to the dearth of information on some of the more controversial practices, like no-knock warrants in narcotics cases and suspect take-down tactics. As such, the GOP bill encourages reporting on these incidents with an eye toward, as Scott said, potentially changing or ending these practices down the road.
For those departments that fail to report annually to a national database all use of force incidents to that result in “serious bodily harm” or where a firearm was discharged, the JUSTICE Act would reduce by 20% federal grant money in the first fiscal year after the law is enacted and a 5% reduction in each following year that data is not reported.
Law enforcement witnesses, from police chiefs to a union representative, told the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday night that the lure or possible elimination of federal money would “absolutely” be a motivator for change.© Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images Sen. Tim Scott is joined by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republican lawmakers for a news conference to unveil the GOP’s legislation to address racial disparities in law enforcement, June 17, 2020, in Washington.
But congressional Democrats, in their Justice in Policing legislation that will be finalized by the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday, called for more active measures, like an outright ban on chokeholds and the elimination of no-knock warrants in drug cases.
“There’s no reason to scribble our changes in the margins, or nibble around the edges of this large, difficult, and persistent problem,” Sen. Schumer said in a floor speech. “The moment calls for bold action, and the American people are behind it.”
But there is overlap in the competing proposals which might point to grounds for a compromise, however difficult that might be.
Like the Scott bill, the Democrats’ legislation – which was crafted with the support of Schumer and the chamber’s two African American Democrats, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker – would finally make lynching a federal hate crime, this after Congress has tried more than 200 times to do so in the first half of the 20th century.
Both bills establish a 19-member Commission on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys, something for which Speaker Nancy Pelosi has advocated. The commission would study – with an eye toward recommending changes – the condition of this particular population, which has historically been disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system, “including homicide rates, arrest and incarceration rates, poverty, violence, fatherhood, mentorship, drug abuse, death rates, disparate income and wealth levels, school performance in all grade levels including postsecondary education and college, and health issues,” according to the bill.
The bill also includes a proposal to beef up funding for popular Community Oriented Policing (COP) programs, something a number of African American expert witnesses at the Tuesday Senate hearing said was of primary importance.
But significant differences remain.© Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi speaks during a news conference on D.C. statehood in the Capitol in Washington, June 16, 2020.
Democrats and many police reform activists want strict limits on qualified immunity, a court-created legal shield that protects police officers from civil lawsuit if their use of force is determined to be “reasonable.” Democrats want the standard to be changed to a showing that the forceful tactic used was “necessary,” something that legal experts say would give victims and their families a chance in court.
In an interview, Scott bluntly said the votes simply are not there among Republicans to alter the legal shield protecting officers from civil lawsuits. Rather, Scott and a number of his colleagues, like Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., say those who have a potential grievance should look to take a particular police officer’s department or city to court, instead.
“I say to those families that the fastest way to find the economic response from the departments is the departments themselves,” Scott told CNN in an interview. “We certainly don’t have the votes on qualified immunity to move it forward. The truth is suing the officer is harder to do than suing the department or the city. That’s where the resources are anyway. So, I think that’s the right path to go on.”
The wild card in the overall debate and potential for compromise remains President Donald Trump who met privately for an emotional conversation with the families of victims who were killed by police, a tearful interaction that sources said left the president, who is often criticized for using racially-insensitive rhetoric, deeply moved.
But then, in a Rose Garden ceremony to introduce an executive order to encourage change in policing practices, the president touted his support for “law and order” and never mentioned “racism” in the speech.© Evan Vucci/AP President Donald Trump speaks during an event on police reform, in the Rose Garden of the White House, June 16, 2020, in Washington.
While Scott was unable to assure that he had Trump’s support, merely saying he “hoped” that was the case, he said he saw positive signs in the Tuesday meeting between Trump and the families that the senator joined.
“The president was the most presidential I’ve seen him talking to the families yesterday. It was not about anything other than finding justice for the victims and their families,” Scott recounted when asked if he thought the president would “bend” in negotiations. “It’s not so much about bending and more about finding justice.”
The JUSTICE Act, created by Scott with the help of GOP Sens. Graham, John Cornyn of Texas, Shelly Moore Capitol of West Virginia, Oklahoma’s Jim Lankford, and Ben Sasse of Nebraska, would impose stiff penalties for any officer who knowingly alters a police report in his or her favor.
This legislative language is something Scott has fought for since the 2015 police shooting of a black man – Walter Scott – in North Charleston as he was fleeing following a traffic stop. The offending officer, who is now serving a 20-year prison sentence, later was found to have altered police reports to his advantage. In the Scott bill, fines and a maximum 20-year prison sentence would be imposed in an officer is found guilty.
It remains unclear if Republicans can find common ground with their colleagues across the political aisle, a difficult prospect in any year but especially in 2020 – a heated presidential election year with passions already boiling over.
Republicans Wednesday repeatedly offered support for police officers who they said were good people, but Democrats – like protesters crowding American cities and towns – have focused more on what they say is systemic racism in police ranks.
It was unclear if that divide was a chasm that could be bridged in this emotional time.
“I don’t know how to tell people that the nation is not racist. I’ll try again – we’re not a racist country. We deal with racism because there’s racism in the country,” Scott explained as his GOP colleagues looked on. “Both are mutually true … So — I don’t want to worry about the definitions that people want to use. It’s good for headlines, but it’s really bad for policy. We’re going to focus on getting something done.”