Democrats introduce sweeping federal police reform legislation in wake of George Floyd death

US House to take up bill banning choke holds by police and repealing ‘qualified immunity’ laws, among several other provisions

Griffin Connolly
Monday 08 June 2020 16:48 BST
Minnesota attorney general believes court will 'do the right thing' in case against Minneapolis police officers involved in George Floyd death

Congressional Democrats unveiled a sweeping police reform package on Monday aimed at ending police brutality, instituting a more robust oversight and accountability regime for police departments across the country, and discontinuing the transfer of military-grade weapons to various units.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Congressional Black Caucus chairwoman Karen Bass, senator Kamala Harris and others began work on the reform bill in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month as a police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes, even as Mr Floyd said he could not breathe.

Since a video of Mr Floyd’s death emerged online, sparking anew decades-old conversations about heavy-handed police tactics in black communities, many liberal anti-police-brutality activists have adopted the motto “defund the police” or “abolish the police”, arguing that local law enforcement institutions are too broken or systemically racist to simply reform.

The package released on Monday indicates that – at least at the federal level – Democratic leaders do not intend to completely dismantle police departments, but rather mandate new policies and training programmes to help mend relationships with the communities they’re supposed to service.

“Black communities have sadly been marching for over 100 years against police abuse – but for the police to protect and serve our communities like they do elsewhere,” Ms Bass said at a press conference on Monday.

The House will work to pass legislation that “not only holds police accountable, and increases transparency, but assists police departments to change the culture”, Ms Bass said.

Among the bill’s most noteworthy reforms are provisions to:

  • provide federal funding for racial bias training;
  • create a national misconduct registry for officers to ensure officers with lengthy and questionable records cannot simply change departments to avoid accountability;
  • reform “qualified immunity laws” to make it easier to prosecute police and other government agent misconduct;
  • require state and local law enforcement agencies to report use-of-force incidents to the Justice Department;
  • ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants in drug cases at the federal level, and incentivise local departments to adopt similar measures by withholding funding for those that don’t.

It was not immediately clear whether Republicans would join Democrats in support of the police reform, although many, even in leadership positions, have acknowledged the federal government may need to take action to address concerns regarding racism within police departments.

“They haven’t been talking to Republicans about this. So, I’m not sure what they’re going to be rolling out,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise said in an interview on Fox & Friends on Monday.

Donald Trump has not yet reviewed the legislation, but there “are some non-starters in there,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters on Monday.

Ms McEnany highlighted the bill’s changes to qualified immunity laws that would make it easier for people to sue police and other government agents for mistreatment and abuse as an example of something the president would oppose.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called on Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to put the reform bill on the floor of the Senate for debate and a vote by the end of June.

“Some Senate Republicans have acknowledged egregious wrongs. But few have expressed a need for floor action. Too many have remained silent. Maybe they’re hoping the issue goes away. I promise them. It will not,” Mr Schumer said.

“Leader McConnell, let’s have the debate, not just on TV and Twitter. But on the floor of the United States Senate,” Mr Schumer said.

Meanwhile, in Minneapolis, where the recent wave of protests began after Mr Floyd’s death, a veto-proof majority of city councillors has committed to disbanding the police force and rebuilding a new law enforcement system.

The city’s progressive mayor, Jacob Frey, has said he does not support “abolishing” the Minneapolis Police Department.

“People continue to require service in many forms from our public safety offices,” Mr Frey said, “whether in times of domestic violence, or assistance in some of the most dire conditions.”

Monday’s introduction of the police reform legislation was only the beginning of a busy week in Congress on criminal justice reform.

The House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on police brutality on Wednesday. Mr Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, is expected to appear either virtually or in person before the panel.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, one of several Republicans who has acknowledged a need for police reform, has said he will schedule a similar hearing for 16 June.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is meeting with Mr Floyd’s family in Houston on Monday before the slain man’s funeral service.

Mr Floyd’s alleged killer, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, will appear in court for the first time on Monday on a state second-degree murder charge.

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