More than 135 civil rights and racial justice groups criticized the Republican bill and wrote a letter to all 100 Senators expressing their “strong opposition” to the bill.
One month after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, the U.S. Congress appears to be on the verge of failing to meet protesters’ demands for police reform.
Senate Democrats on Wednesday blocked a GOP police reform bill that they deemed insufficient, while Senate Republicans have resisted a House bill spearheaded by Democrats.
“The Republican majority proposed the legislative equivalent of a fig leaf—something that provides a little cover but no real change,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) said on the Senate floor on Wednesday morning. “The harsh fact of the matter is, the bill is so deeply, fundamentally and irrevocably flawed, it cannot serve as a useful starting point for meaningful reform.”
In rejecting the GOP proposal, Democrats called for a bipartisan effort, pushing for measures included in the House Democrats’ bill, which goes much farther than the Senate bill.
The House proposal includes: a ban on chokeholds; provides no new funding for law enforcement; ends absolute qualified immunity, which protects officers from being sued for misconduct; and bans no-knock warrants which allow police to enter homes or businesses without knocking and announcing their presence. Democrats also want to make lynching a federal hate crime, form a national policing commission, and create a national database of excessive-force encounters. The bill is expected to pass the House on Thursday, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said it is “going nowhere” in his chamber.
The Senate GOP’s effort, meanwhile, only seeks to disincentivize the use of chokeholds through grant funding, does provide new funding for police, makes no changes to qualified immunity, and does not ban no-knock warrants. Instead, it simply requires states and localities to report the use of no-knock warrants to the Justice Department. Those that fail to report would be punished by losing out on federal funding.
The Republican plan also aims to criminalize lynching, create an enhanced use-of-force database, and create new commissions to study law enforcement and race. Top Democratic leaders in the Senate said Tuesday that the Republican policing proposal is “not salvageable.”
Republicans said their proposal is a good starting point for legislation and accused Democrats of being “hostage takers” over their refusal to let the bill proceed to the Senate floor. “I just think it’s mindless, it’s mindless obstruction,” Sen. John Cornyn of Texas told the Washington Post. “I just can’t. This is the worst I’ve seen it.”
Republicans accused Democratic of playing politics, but more than 135 civil rights and racial justice groups also criticized the Senate bill and wrote a letter to all 100 senators expressing their “strong opposition” to the legislation, urging them to vote no on allowing the bill to come to the Senate floor.
“The JUSTICE Act is an inadequate response to the decades of pain, hardship, and devastation that Black people have and continue to endure as a result of systemic racism and lax policies that fail to hold police accountable for misconduct,” the coalition wrote. “This bill falls woefully short of the comprehensive reform needed to address the current policing crisis and achieve meaningful law enforcement accountability. It is deeply problematic to meet this moment with a menial incremental approach that offers more funding to police, and few policies to effectively address the constant loss of Black lives at the hands of police.”
Hilary O. Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington Bureau, criticized the Republican effort for its “lack of police accountability and enforceable policies” and called for a multi-faceted approach. The coalition’s demands are as follows:
- the creation of a use of force standard that allows force only when necessary and, as a last resort;
- a ban on chokeholds;
- a ban on racial profiling;
- the establishment of a police misconduct registry;
- the addition of a “reckless” standard in federal law to enable federal prosecutors to hold law enforcement accountable for criminal civil rights violations;
- a ban on no-knock warrants, especially in drug cases;
- the end of qualified immunity; and
- the demilitarization of law enforcement agencies.
The group also criticized the Republican effort for providing more than $7 billion in additional federal funds for law enforcement over the next five years, which they said directly contradicts their demands as well as the calls of protesters who want to reimagine public safety and reduce the footprint of the nation’s law enforcement system.
“Pouring additional funding into a broken system is bad policy. Furthermore, considering the limited financial resources prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, all policing reform models must reprioritize how limited dollars are spent,” they wrote. They instead called for those funds to be redirected to important sectors such as housing, education, and health care. “Millions of people in the United States are calling for these kinds of direct investments into communities, and Congress should heed that call.”
There is overwhelming support for nationwide police reform. A Morning Consult poll released Wednesday found substantial bipartisan support for many of the measures championed by Democrats. The poll found that:
- 73% of voters—including 85% of Democrats and 60% of Republicans—support banning chokeholds.
- 64% ban bans on no-knock warrants, including 75% of Democrats and 52% of Republicans.
- 62% support allowing individuals to sue the police over misconduct
Consequently, voters also expressed a preference for the Democrats’ proposal, with 48% saying it appropriately addresses police reform, compared to only 33% who said the same of the Republican effort. Another 43% said the GOP effort doesn’t go far enough.
President Trump has been largely absent from the discussion. After signing a relatively toothless executive order that incentivized modest police reforms, Trump has spent recent days criticizing protesters, emphasizing “law and order,” and ignoring the issue of systemic racism in law enforcement. He has spent that time further inflaming racial tensions by tweeting out old videos that depict random incidents of Black people attacking white people without providing the necessary context behind the incidents. He has also accused former president Barack Obama of “treason,” argued against removing statues of Confederate generals, and called protesters “hoodlums,” “anarchists” and “agitators.”
Trump’s presumed opponent in November, Joe Biden, has taken a different tact, and his campaign on Tuesday told the Washington Post that he “fully supports Senate Democrats doing exactly what voters sent them to Washington to do by demanding bipartisan negotiations to move the ball forward on police reform legislation.”
The coalition of civil rights groups similarly demanded bipartisan negotiations.
“Now is the time for Congress to be bold and pass meaningful police accountability reform legislation. A vast and diverse collection of people from coast to coast are calling on lawmakers to prioritize Black communities and protect them from the systemic perils of over-policing, police brutality, misconduct, and harassment,” they wrote. “It is your moral and ethical duty to ensure Black people and communities are free from the harm and threats from law enforcement and militarized police responses. It is also your responsibility to ensure that any legislation passed does not just provide lip service to these problems, but fully meets the critical needs of this moment and beyond.”
Such a bipartisan effort looks increasingly unlikely following Wednesday’s vote in the Senate, even as Democrats have said they want to keep pushing and work on a bipartisan proposal. “This does not mark the end of the road,” Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer told reporters on Wednesday following the vote on the GOP effort.
Republicans, however, appear to be much less willing to talk and skeptical of such compromise. “I don’t see a way forward,” said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham.