Senate Judiciary Committee Focuses on Police Reform

Senator Lindsey Graham talks with Senator Cory Booker prior to a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on police use of force Tuesday in Washington. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) — In a committee hearing on community relations and the police Tuesday, Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham reflected on the fact that many people of color in America feel anxiety and fear when confronted by law enforcement officers. 

“I’ve learned over the years, but particularly recently, that every black man in America, apparently, feels threatened when they’re stopped by the cops. And it’s not 99% it’s like 100%,” Graham said. 

“When I see a cop behind me the first thing I think about is, ‘what did I do wrong and can I talk myself out of this ticket?’” the senator added. “There is literally no fear and I wouldn’t like to live in a country where I would be afraid to be stopped, so hopefully we can all understand that problem and fix it.”

Senate Judiciary members also discussed the Justice in Policing Act of 2020 — legislation introduced last week by House Democrats in response to the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

If passed, the bill would create a national registry to track law enforcement misconduct, require permanent racial bias training and eliminate qualified immunity as a defense to civil actions. Republican lawmakers, who are expected to unveil their version of a police reform bill Wednesday, have said qualified immunity provisions and attacking other police protections are “off the table.”

For over five hours Tuesday, Senators heard from two panels of witnesses, whose expertise spanned a variety of specialties. The first panel included Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights President Vanita Gupta and St. Paul, Minnesota, Mayor Melvin Carter. The second panel focused largely on input from law enforcement officials like Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo and Patrick Yoes, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police.

S. Lee Merritt, an attorney representing the family of Ahmaud Arbery, testified the American legal system was “as ravenous as it is racist,” and said the issue of addressing true reform to police demanded a national response.

Arbery, a black man, was shot and killed Feb. 23 by two white men while jogging in a residential area in Brunswick, Georgia. 

“Ahmaud’s story is not just tragic and unjust, it lays bare the need for a reimagining of police in America and their mission in our society,” he said.

One exchange between Gupta and Senator John Cornyn, R-Texas, focused on the systematic and structural racism in American systems. Bias has been built into American institutions and shaped by these forces, she said.

“Do you believe that, basically, all Americans are racist?” Cornyn asked.

“I think we all have implicit bias and racial bias, yes I do, and I think that we are an amazing country that strives to be better every single day that’s why I went to government, to make a more perfect union,” she said.

Senator Cory Booker, a co-sponsor of the bill, said it was important to address the issue of structural racism and to be able to have intelligent conversations about that bias. In his opening statement Tuesday, the New Jersey Democrat said lawmakers must act boldly and set meaningful standards for officers instead of “nibbling around the edges.”

Businesses that have analyzed why women are paid less than men for the same work are great examples, he said, as such analysis has found there are systems of biases that make it inherently harder for women to be treated equally.

“What we know is that we have systems within criminal justice that produce different outcomes depending on a person’s race,” he said. “African American women, controlling for class, find that they die in childbirth at three or four times the rate. That means in that system we have a racial outcome, that is systemically racist.”

Senator Kamala Harris, a Democrat from California and the bill’s other sponsor in the Senate, said Americans also had to deal with structural inequities in the country’s housing, health care and education systems. She urged a reimagining of police departments and said status-quo thinking that employing more police officers equated to safer communities is wrong and distracts policymakers.

“It’s time for us to realize this is not just a moment but a movement,” she said. “This committee and our entire federal government have a role to play in holding the police accountable when they break the rules and break the law; and we must be on the right side of history as a committee.”

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