House and Senate Democrats Unveil Wide-Ranging Policing Overhaul, Take Knee at Capitol

June 8, 2020 by Dan McCue
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., center, and other members of Congress, kneel and observe a moment of silence at the Capitol's Emancipation Hall, Monday, June 8, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington, reading the names of George Floyd and others killed during police interactions. Democrats proposed a sweeping overhaul of police oversight and procedures Monday, an ambitious legislative response to the mass protests denouncing the deaths of black Americans at the hands of law enforcement. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

WASHINGTON – House and Senate Democrats proposed a sweeping overhaul of police oversight and procedures Monday, the first legislative response to mass protests that have gripped the nation in the wake of the death of an unarmed black man while in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Before unveiling the package in the U.S. Capitol’s Emancipation Hall, the large central chamber named to recognize the contributions of the enslaved laborers who helped build the historic structure, the assembled lawmakers knelt for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the length of time prosecutors say George Floyd was pinned under a white police officer’s knee before he died.

They then proceeded to read the names of Floyd and others killed during police interactions.

Their legislative response to the tens of thousands of protestors who have taken to the streets of several American cities since Floyd’s death on May 25, is called The Justice in Policing Act.

Its provisions would limit legal protections for police, revising the federal criminal police misconduct statute to make it easier to prosecute officers who are involved in misconduct “knowingly or with reckless disregard.”

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

The Act goes on to create a “National Police Misconduct Registry,” a database of excessive-force incidents to try to prevent officers from transferring from one department to another with past misconduct undetected

The legislation grants 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, police choke holds, and boost requirements for police body cameras.

A long-sought federal anti-lynching bill which stalled in the U.S. Senate last week is also included in the package.

A section-by-section summary of the Justice in Policing Act of 2020 is available here.

A fact sheet on the Justice in Policing Act of 2020 is available here

‘Transformative’ Change Sought

Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, which is leading to charge to bring changes to law enforcement, called the package of legislation “transformative.”

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

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

“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.”

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.

“We have heard the terrifying words ‘I can’t breathe’ from George Floyd, Eric Garner, and the millions of Americans in the streets calling out for change,” Nadler said in a statement.

“This is a systemic problem that requires a comprehensive solution,” Nadler continued. “This bold, transformative legislation will finally ban chokeholds at the federal level and incentivize states to do the same, it will help end racial profiling, get weapons of war off our streets, hold police accountable, increase transparency and require and encourage greater use of body cameras.

“It does all of this while ensuring that our law enforcement agencies adhere to the very highest standards in training, hiring and de-escalation strategies to address systemic racism and bias to change the culture of law enforcement in America and ultimately save lives,” he said.

“We remain a nation of imperfections calling out to us to be addressed with the seriousness and determination to make good on the promise that all are created equal … that all are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – and the right to breathe, the right to have their lives matter,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said.

 “We’ve heard our people cry out, ‘I can’t breathe.’ We’ve heard our people speak out, ‘Black lives matter.’ Black lives matter. The protests we’ve seen in recent days are an expression of rage born of despair,” Hoyer said. “Democrats in the House and Senate are saying: ‘We see you. We hear you. We are acting.’”

The package stops short calls by leading activists to “defund the police,” a push to dismantle or reduce financial resources to police departments that has struck new intensity in the weeks of protests since Floyd’s death.

GOP Stance Unknown

It was unclear Monday whether any congressional Republicans would join the effort, though one, Sen. Mike Lee, of Utah, said he would like to review the package.

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, but he has yet to comment directly on the Democrats’ proposal.

Democratic Senators, including Sens. Cory Booker, of New Jersey, and Kamala Harris, of California, co-sponsors of the companion package in the Senate, vowed Monday to pressure Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to consider the legislation.

“America has a serious and deadly problem when it comes to the discriminatory and excessive policing of communities of color – and that policing exists within a system that time and again refuses to hold police accountable for their brutality,” Booker said. “For too long, this has been accepted as a cruel reality of being black in this country. We are forced to figure out how to keep ourselves safe from law enforcement and we are viewed as a threat to be protected against instead of people worth protecting. And for too long, Congress has failed to act. That ends today.”

“As a career prosecutor and former Attorney General of California, I know that real public safety requires community trust and police accountability. I am proud to join my colleagues in introducing this historic legislation that will get our country on a path forward,” Harris said.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has previous said he backs the ban on chokeholds and several other elements included in the package.

“Sometimes difficult circumstances present a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring about historic change,” said Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League. “The brutal actions of police in George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, along with botched execution of a no-knock warrant that killed Breonna Taylor in Louisville, and the brazen vigilante execution of Ahmaud Arbery in Glynn County, Georgia, have pushed the nation to the tipping point.”

“We cannot settle for anything less than transformative structural change,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.

Democrats Demand Trump Reopen Lafayette Park

After the press conference in Emancipation Hall, Speaker Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, of New York, sent a letter to President Donald Trump, demanding that he immediately reopen Lafayette Square, a park directly across the street from the White House that has been the scene of repeated protests this past week.

In the letter, Pelosi and Schumer also strongly condemn the Administration’s June 1st use of federal officers to forcibly remove peaceful protestors from the Square using tear gas and other violent means so the President could hold a photo-op in front of St. John’s Church.

“This deeply offensive action was taken in service of the regrettable political stunt you staged,” the two Democratic leaders said.

“You have now erected heavy, semi-permanent steel fencing to wall off the Square,” they continued. “Your conversion of this unique public park in the heart of our Nation’s capital to what looks like a militarized zone denies citizens access to the park and sends the worst possible message to the American public and people around the world.

“It is not sufficient for your administration to claim that security needs somehow require the closing of Lafayette Square,” Pelosi and Schumer continued. “The secure perimeter of the White House was expanded dramatically in 1995 with the closure of sections of Pennsylvania Avenue and E Street, NW. Those measures have for a quarter of a century been adequate to protect the White House complex from terrorism and all manner of threats.

“It is simply not credible to claim that the current protests justify the oppressive walls you have erected in response,” they concluded.

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