Democrats Push Sweeping Police-Reform Legislation

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other members of Congress kneeled Monday at the Emancipation Hall in a moment of silence to honor victims of racial injustice. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Nearly two weeks of national protests ignited by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody prompted Democrats in Congress on Monday to take what they call legislative first steps at police reform.

The bill known as the Justice in Policing Act of 2020 is not yet public but is said to span over 100 pages with provisions that, among other details, designate chokeholds as a prohibited move for law enforcement officers.

Two weeks ago exactly, as documented in bystander footage of the incident, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was seen using such a move during the arrest of 46-year-old George Floyd on Memorial Day. Floyd was already on the ground in handcuffs and pleaded that he could not breathe as Chauvin used his knee to pin down Floyd’s throat for nearly nine minutes, killing him.

A medical examiner’s report ordered by his family has since found that Floyd suffocated to death, and Chauvin is charged with murder. For thousands across the country who have joined a nationwide protest in recent weeks, however, Chauvin’s prosecution is not enough to correct America’s record of killings where the victims like Floyd tend to be unarmed and black.

“Racism is a cancer that poisons our society and today we take a step toward addressing it by trying to eradicate the malignant tumor of police brutality,” Representative Hakeem Jeffries, a New York Democrat, said during a Monday press conference on Capitol Hill. 

Jeffries, who belongs to the Congressional Black Caucus, had tried to ban chokeholds back in 2015 after New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner in a chokehold. Like Floyd, Garner was black, unarmed and facing arrest for a suspected misdemeanor crime. Garner was suspected of selling loose cigarettes outside the Staten Island Ferry, and Floyd of using a counterfeit $20 bill. Unlike with Floyd, the officer who killed Garner was never criminally charged.

“The chokehold and other police tactics such as a knee to the neck which cuts off breathing and results in asphyxiation is a procedure that is unnecessary and unacceptable, unconscionable and un-American,” Jeffries said. “This legislation will make it unlawful under our nation’s civil rights laws.”

Several police departments already prohibit the use of the chokehold as a matter of policy, yet the maneuver is still deployed.

“That’s why we need to address it, prohibit it, outlaw it and criminalize it,” Jeffries said.

Also upping liability, accountability and transparency standards for police, the bill includes a provision that makes permanent the requirement that state and local police departments conduct racial bias training.

And for the first time ever, a “national police misconduct registry” would be created to track and identify those officers with a recorded history of problematic or potentially violent or prejudiced behavior.

Such a database would ostensibly make sharing information across state and city lines about a police officer’s background and professional history far easier.

This, according to the legislation’s Senate co-sponsor, New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker, means it would also make it far harder for “problematic officers” who are fired from one town to jump to another without anyone being the wiser.

Targeting a federal statute governing police misconduct, the legislation would also change existing language from the standard of “willful misconduct” to “reckless disregard.”

This will make holding bad actors to account easier under the law, said Senator Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor who represents California.

The bill additionally requires police departments to mandate the use of body cameras and dashboard cameras on their patrol cars, reform qualified immunity standards and ban no-knock warrants.

Protesters, part of a nationwide movement sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, appear in front of the White House on Saturday. The sign in the center says, “By Any Means Necessary,” a reference to their resolve to see black lives protected and police defunded. (Courthouse News photo/Brandi Buchman)

Protesters seeking justice for Floyd have also called attention to the April killing in Louisville, Kentucky, of Breonna Taylor, a young black woman and emergency medical technician who would have turned 27 years old this past weekend. Taylor had been asleep in her own home when police broke down the door and shot her eight times, executing a warrant for suspects believed to have used her apartment to receive packages.

“We’re here because black Americans want to stop being killed,” Senator Harris said.

Another component of legislation makes lynching a hate crime.

The House passed an antilynching bill resoundingly 410­–4 in February. When it went before the Senate for a vote last week — even as national protests against racial injustice raged from coast to coast — one vote against from Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky barred its passage.

Paul has argued that the bill defines lynching too broadly.

Similarly the latest legislation is likely to fly through the House, where it has more than 200 co-sponsors, only to meet resistance in the Republican-controlled Senate.

“We want to see bold, transformative effort and that’s exactly what the bill will do,” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi told reporters Monday after she and other Democratic leadership, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, observed a moment of silence  and kneeled for George Floyd in nearby Emancipation Hall before the press conference began.

Chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus Karen Bass said she was “certain” police officers want to make sure they are trained in the best practices of policing.

“A profession where you have the power to kill should be a profession that includes highly trained officers held accountable to the public,” she said.

The legislation does not lay out a plan to defund police — a specific demand of the Black Lives Matter movement — but it does call for the demilitarization of police forces and the end of military-type weapon sales to law enforcement officers.

President Donald Trump’s campaign team beat the drum for “law and order” during a teleconference Monday that featured Ken Blackwell, the conservative former mayor of Ohio from 1979 to 1980 who now serves as a senior fellow for the fundamentalist Christian activist group The Family Research Council. 

Unlike Trump, his expected election opponent in November, former Vice President Joe Biden, has publicly supported defunding the police.

Blackwell skewered this position Monday: “The notion that we would defund the police departments in our cities means that folks are willing to put the citizens in their communities who are most often or those most vulnerable at risk,” he said.

One would have to be “stupid to buy into that fact,” he said.

“Or you have blinders on to the misery index that we are witnessing as we watch the effect of Covid-19 and the violence and chaos that has been put on these neighborhoods and our fellow Americans,” Blackwell continued.

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