Republican Police-Reform Bill Incentivizes but Doesn’t Order Chokehold Ban

Protesters march in Palmdale, Calif., on Saturday to demand an investigation into the death of 24-year-old Robert Fuller, who was found hanging from a tree early Wednesday near City Hall. (Francisco Lozano via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Senate Republicans unveiled a police-reform package on Wednesday that would encourage state and local authorities to ban chokeholds and to increase reporting on officers’ use of force and no-knock warrants.

The bill is the GOP response to legislation House Democrats unveiled last week. It primarily leverages the federal government’s control of funding to encourage reforms and increased reporting in state and local police departments.

In addition to reporting on use of force, the bill requires departments that get certain types of money from the federal government to submit reports on the use of no-knock warrants to the Justice Department, and it blocks departments from receive funding if they do not ban chokeholds except in circumstances in which officers are allowed to use deadly force.

States and local governments that do not comply with the reporting requirements would have their federal funding cut by as much as 20% in the first year and 5% after that, up to 25% in any single fiscal year.

In addition, the bill sets aside federal funding for body cameras, makes it a crime for officers to submit false incident reports, and conditions federal money for state and local governments on departments creating a system to maintain and share disciplinary records for officers. 

Marshaled by South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, the bill also makes lynching a federal crime and creates two commissions that would study the criminal justice system as a whole and issues specifically impacting black men, including education, civil rights, health care and employment. 

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., right, accompanied by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., left, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, center, and others, speaks at a Wednesday news conference to announce a Republican police reform bill. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Scott, the only black Republican in the Senate, said Wednesday the bill’s intent is to use increased transparency to rebuild trust between communities of color and law enforcement.

“We believe our policy positions are one that brings the communities of color into a position of stronger understanding and confidence in the institutions of authority,” Scott said at a press conference announcing the legislation. “And we believe that it brings our law enforcement community to a place where they have the resources necessary to de-escalate some of these situations.”

Scott has often discussed breakdowns in trust between communities and law enforcement in personal terms, recalling his experience of being pulled over by police seven times in one year. On Wednesday he said he was stopped recently “for driving while black” and given a warning for not using his turn signal early enough in a lane change.

In light of calls for more fundamental changes to how police departments look and operate, Scott said it is a false choice to set support for law enforcement and for communities of color as opposing views.

The bill is narrower than the one advanced by House Democrats, which would ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants at the federal level, with federal funding to local departments conditioned on them banning the practices. The Democrats’ bill would also limit qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that shields law enforcement officers from civil lawsuits related to misconduct.

Republicans, including Scott, have called reforms to qualified immunity a nonstarter on police reform legislation.

Police-reform legislation has become a central debate in Washington amid nationwide protests spurred by the killing last month of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, in police custody in Minneapolis.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Senate plans to move to the legislation as early as next week after confirming two federal appeals court judges. He cast the Senate bill as one that could become law, in contrast with the House Democrats’ bill. 

“Our Democratic friends, if they want to make a law and not just try to make a point, I hope they will join us in getting on the bill and trying to move forward in the way the Senate does move forward when it’s trying to actually get an outcome rather than just sparring back and forth, which you all have seen on frequent occasions by both sides,” McConnell said Wednesday.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said the Republican proposal “does not rise to the moment,” contrasting its provisions with the bill from House Democrats. He said Democrats will work with Republicans on making changes to the legislation ahead of any floor action. 

“This bill will need dramatic improvement,” Schumer said in a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday morning. “Let me be clear, this is not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. This is about making the ineffective the enemy of the effective.”

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