Congressional Democrats call for sweeping police reform

By Lisa Mascaro
AP Congressional Correspondent

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats proposed a sweeping overhaul of police oversight and procedures Monday, a potentially far-reaching legislative response to the mass protests denouncing the deaths of black Americans in the hands of law enforcement.

Before unveiling the package, House and Senate Democrats held a moment of silence at the Capitol’s Emancipation Hall, reading the names of George Floyd and others killed during police interactions. They knelt for 8 minutes and 46 seconds — now a symbol of police brutality and violence — the length of time prosecutors say Floyd was pinned under a white police officer’s knee before he died.

“We cannot settle for anything less than transformative structural change,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, drawing on the nation’s history of slavery. 

The Justice in Policing Act would limit legal protections for police, create a national database of excessive-force incidents and ban police choke holds, among other changes, according to an early draft. It is the most ambitious change  to law enforcement sought by Congress in years.

Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, which is leading the effort, said called it “bold” and “transformative.”

“The world is witnessing the birth of a new movement in this country,” Bass said.

Despite the worldwide protests, with tens of thousands of demonstrators taking to the streets in cities across America and abroad since Floyd was killed May 25, the idea of broad-based U.S. police reforms remains politically polarized and highly uncertain in this election year.

While Democrats are expected to swiftly approve the legislation this month, it does not go as far as some activists want to “defund the police.” The outlook for passing the package in the Republican-held Senate is slim. 

President Donald Trump, who will meet with law enforcement officials later Monday at the White House, was quick to characterize the Democrats as having “gone CRAZY!” 

As activists call for restructuring police departments the president tweeted, “LAW & ORDER, NOT DEFUND AND ABOLISH THE POLICE.”

Republican campaign officials followed suit.

“No industry is safe from the Democrats’ abolish culture,” said Micahel McAdams, a spokesman for the House Republican campaign committee, in an email blast. “First they wanted to abolish private health insurance, then it was capitalism and now it’s the police.”

Democrats fought back.

This isn’t about that,” Pelosi said. Congress is not calling for any wholesale defunding of law enforcement, leaving those decisions to local cities and states, she noted.

The package confronts several aspects of law enforcement accountability and practices that have come under criticism, especially as more and more police violence is captured on cellphone video and shared widely across the nation, and the world.

The proposed legislation would revise the federal criminal police misconduct statute to make it easier to prosecute officers who are involved in misconduct “knowingly or with reckless disregard.”

The package would also change “qualified immunity” protections for police “to enable individuals to recover damages when law enforcement officers violate their constitutional rights.”

The legislation would seek to provide greater oversight and transparency of police behavior in several ways. For one, it would grant subpoena power to the Justice Department to conduct “pattern and practice” investigations of potential misconduct and help states conduct independent investigations. It would ban racial profiling and boost requirements for police body cameras. 

And it would create a “National Police Misconduct Registry,” a database to try to prevent officers from transferring from one department to another with past misconduct undetected, the draft said.

A long-sought federal anti-lynching bill  stalled in Congress is included in the package.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., a co-author with Bass and the Democratic senators, will convene a hearing on the legislation Wednesday.

It is unclear if law enforcement and the powerful police unions will back any of the proposed changes or if congressional Republicans will join the effort.

At least one Republican, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, who has long pushed for a criminal justice overhaul, has said he’d like to review the package coming from Democrats. 

And Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has said his panel intends to hold a hearing to review use of force issues and police practices.

Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, who marched in support of Floyd in Houston, penned an op-ed Monday about his own black father instructing him as a teen how to respond if he was pulled over by the police. Hurd offered his own proposals for improved police practices. 

The presumed Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, has backed a ban on chokeholds and other elements of the package.

“I can’t breathe” has become a rallying cry by protesters. Floyd pleaded with police that he couldn’t breathe, echoing the phrase Eric Garner said while in police custody in 2014 before his death. 

“All we’ve ever wanted is to be treated equally — not better, not worse,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y. “Equal protection under the law.”

Democratic senators said they would pressure Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to consider the legislation.

Sen. Cory Booker, a Democratic rival who had been critical of Biden during the presidential primary campaign, said Sunday he “fully” put his faith in Biden now “to be the person who could preside over this transformative change.”

Booker and fellow one-time presidential hopeful, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, are co-authors of the package in the Senate.

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