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In Wake Of Protests, Democrats To Unveil Police Reform Legislation

Jose Luis Magana
Democratic lawmakers plan to introduce a bill this week to curb police excesses.

In the wake of national protests set off following the death of George Floyd, House and Senate Democrats will unveil legislation Monday that would bring about wide-ranging reforms to the country's police departments.

The Democratic proposal, the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, marks one of the most comprehensive efforts in modern times to overhaul the way police do their jobs.

It would prohibit the use of choke-holds, lower legal standards to pursue criminal and civil penalties for police misconduct, and ban certain no-knock warrants, according to a congressional Democratic aide. The plan would also create a national registry to track police misconduct.

"These are commonsense changes that, frankly, will create a far greater level of accountability for those police officers who violate the law, who violate our rights and who violate our common community standards," New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker told NPR's All Things Considered on Sunday.

The Congressional Black Caucus and the House Judiciary Committee, as well as Booker and Sen. Kamala Harris of California, crafted the plan. They wrote their colleagues in an emailed letter with an outline of the legislation on Saturday, and urged them to join as co-sponsors. The congressional aide provided the letter and bill outline to NPR.

"Persistent, unchecked bias in policing and a history of lack of accountability is wreaking havoc on the Black community. Cities are literally on fire with the pain and anguish wrought by the violence visited upon black and brown bodies," the sponsors said, naming African Americans who have died in cases tied to police brutality. "While there is no single policy prescription that will erase the decades of systemic racism and excessive policing – it's time we create structural change with meaningful reforms."

Bill could face Republican opposition

Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she had asked the Congressional Black Caucus to lead the process of drafting a legislative response. Democrats hope to calm a national outcry sparked by the May 25 death of Floyd, who was killed in Minneapolis police custody.

House Democrats sorted through dozens of proposals to address policing issues, including excessive use of force and racial profiling. And while there is some degree of bipartisan support for reviewing the tactics that led to Floyd's death, cooperation is less certain on a legislative solution.

Republicans were absent from Democratic talks to develop the legislation, and for now are unlikely to support it.

"I think we can easily find common ground on both sides and we can do it swiftly, but it's more difficult if you're away," House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told reporters Thursday, referencing an extended House recess as a result of the pandemic. "Members of Congress should not be called back for one week and say, 'Here are all the bills.'"

The Democratic led-House is expected to take up the measure later this month, but its fate is much less clear in the Republican Senate. For now, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and many Republicans have acknowledged "egregious wrongs" in police brutality cases.

"It's certainly something that we need to take a look at," McConnell told reporters last week. "We'll be talking to our colleagues about what, if anything, is appropriate for us to do in the wake of what's going on."

South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced a June 16 hearing on police use of force 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."

Congress has often struggled to address policing issues on a bipartisan basis. Many decisions about policing tactics, training and strategies are determined at the state and local level.

Higher standards for police

California Rep. Karen Bass, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said while she couldn't confirm any Republicans are on board with the proposal yet, she's holding out hope.

She also noted that a wave of videos documenting new cases of police brutality at protests could provide new momentum for legislation.

"It's time for police culture in many departments to change and we believe that the legislation will make a major step forward in that direction," Bass said on CNN's State of the Union on Sunday.

The bill's authors say it addresses concerns of steep requirements to pursue penalties against police misconduct. It reforms qualified immunity for police officers, or their legal protection shield for certain actions, to allow individuals to recover damages when their constitutional rights are violated.

And it lowers the "mens rea" standard in the U.S. Code to a finding of an officer's recklessness.

"The current mens rea standard of 'willfulness' has made it extremely difficult to prosecute law enforcement officers," the bill's sponsors told their colleagues.

Among the bill's other efforts:

  • It creates a National Police Misconduct Registry to track police misconduct and thwart officers from switching jurisdictions to avoid accountability. The plan also looks to improve police practices by mandating training on racial bias and the duty to intervene.
  • It also limits the transfer of military-grade weapons to state and local law enforcement agencies and requires the use of body cameras.
  • The legislation would also empower attorneys general and the Justice Department to play a much larger role in its oversight of police agencies. For example, it would create a grant program to allow attorneys general to independently investigate police misconduct and excessive use of force. And it would give the Justice Department greater powers to investigate and track cases.
  • It would also condition federal funding for state and local police agencies to their training and adoption of policies to combat racial bias and profiling, as well as ban "no-knock" warrants in drug-related cases and the use of choke-holds.

The House could take up the measure when it is due to return June 30. However, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters last week that lawmakers could return sooner to approve the plan.

Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.
Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.
Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.
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