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Democrats Unveil Police Reform Legislation Amid Protests Nationwide

Congressional Democrats on Monday unveiled the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, which aims to install wide-ranging reforms for police departments across the country. It faces Republican opposition.
Jose Luis Magana
Congressional Democrats on Monday unveiled the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, which aims to install wide-ranging reforms for police departments across the country. It faces Republican opposition.

Updated at 1 p.m. ET

In the wake of national protests following the death of George Floyd, House and Senate Democrats unveiled legislation on Monday that would bring about wide-ranging reforms to police departments across the country.

The Democratic proposal, the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, has more than 200 sponsors and marks one of the most comprehensive efforts in modern times to overhaul the way police do their jobs.

It would prohibit the use of chokeholds, lower legal standards to pursue criminal and civil penalties for police misconduct, and ban no-knock warrants in drug-related cases. The plan would also create a national registry to track police misconduct.

"We can't settle for anything other than transformative structural change," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said on Monday while flanked by the bill's authors gathered to introduce the legislation. "True justice can only be achieved with full, comprehensive action, that is what we are doing today. This is a first step; there is more to come."

The Congressional Black Caucus and the House Judiciary Committee, as well as Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California, crafted the plan. They wrote their colleagues an emailed letter with an outline of the legislation on Saturday and urged them to join as co-sponsors. A Democratic congressional aide provided the letter and bill outline to NPR.

"Persistent, unchecked bias in policing and a history of lack of accountability is wreaking havoc on the black community. Cities are literally on fire with the pain and anguish wrought by the violence visited upon black and brown bodies," the sponsors said, naming black people who have died in cases tied to police brutality. "While there is no single policy prescription that will erase the decades of systemic racism and excessive policing — it's time we create structural change with meaningful reforms."

Bill could face Republican opposition

Last week, Pelosi said she asked the Congressional Black Caucus to lead the process of drafting a legislative response. Democrats hope to calm a national outcry sparked by the May 25 death of Floyd, who was killed in Minneapolis police custody.

Democrats sorted through dozens of proposals to address policing issues, including excessive use of force and racial profiling. And while there is some degree of bipartisan support for reviewing the tactics that led to Floyd's death, cooperation is less certain on a legislative solution.

Republicans were absent from Democratic talks to develop the legislation and for now are unlikely to support it.

"I think we can easily find common ground on both sides and we can do it swiftly, but it's more difficult if you're away," House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told reporters Thursday, referencing an extended House recess as a result of the pandemic. "Members of Congress should not be called back for one week and say, 'Here are all the bills.' "

The Democratic led-House is expected to take up the measure later this month, but its fate is much less clear in the Republican-controlled Senate. For now, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and many Republicans have acknowledged "egregious wrongs" in police brutality cases.

"It's certainly something that we need to take a look at," McConnell told reporters last week. "We'll be talking to our colleagues about what, if anything, is appropriate for us to do in the wake of what's going on."

Congress has often struggled to address policing issues on a bipartisan basis as some say decisions about policing tactics, training and strategies should be solved at the state and local level.

South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced a June 16 hearing on police use of force to "shine a bright light on the problems associated with Mr. Floyd's death, with the goal of finding a better way forward for our nation."

Many Democrats say it is critical that this legislation be comprehensive and ambitious, even if Senate Republicans refuse to consider the bill. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Democrats need to make sure the package reflects the demands of the people protesting and calling for change.

"The American public is going to get behind it," Cleaver said in an interview with NPR. "They are saying they want substantive change. They want reform. Reforms that perhaps in the past people have been afraid to embrace."

Cleaver said serving in Congress requires a certain level of courage to vote for legislation that may be controversial. He said in the past, lawmakers from both parties have shied away from addressing systemic issues with policing but he believes this moment is different.

The Missouri Democrat, a former mayor of Kansas City, Mo., said the response to the killing of George Floyd gives Congress an opportunity to create uniform standards that help mayors and local leaders by giving them guidelines for conduct. He said federal laws can also provide political backup for local leaders when they meet resistance.

"I think that the federal government must express itself," Cleaver said. "Local communities all around the country who might be reticent about doing things that they believe would be helpful can say, 'Hey, that's the law.' "

Debate about calls to "defund the police"

The legislation does not address the growing movement among some protesters calling to defund police departments. California Rep. Karen Bass, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, told reporters that the legislation aims instead to overhaul how policing is conducted.

"We feel it is transformative, that it will transform the relationships that our communities have with the police," Bass said.

Democrats at Monday's press conference largely avoided addressing the concept of defunding the police or their support for that demand.

Congressional Republicans and their campaign operations have already begun attacking Democrats over the demand to defund the police. Outside groups and the official campaign organizations for House and Senate Republicans have begun linking rank-and-file Democrats to the defund movement. President Trump has also weighed in. Democrats, like Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., dismissed the tactic as a "predictable and hurtful" way to undermine the legislation.

"The same way there have been efforts to undermine the Black Lives Matter movement and to co-opt the narrative of what is actually happening throughout our glow in this moment, that commentary is certainly not surprising," Pressley said in an interview with NPR. "Those efforts are always underway; we will not allow that narrative to persist and to obstruct the work that we need to do as a legislative body."

Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, released a statement on Monday saying he opposes defunding the police. He said he is supporting policies that would increase resources for programs outside of police departments to address societal issues "so that officers can focus on the job of policing," as well as providing funding for body cameras and other measures inside police departments.

Higher standards for police

Bass said while she couldn't confirm any Republicans are on board with the proposal yet, she's holding out hope.

She also noted that a wave of videos documenting new cases of police brutality at protests could provide new momentum for legislation.

"The world is watching the birth of a new movement in our country," Bass said Monday.

The bill's authors say it addresses concerns of steep requirements to pursue penalties against police misconduct. It reforms qualified immunity for police officers, or their legal protection shield for certain actions, to allow individuals to recover damages when their constitutional rights are violated.

And it lowers the "mens rea" standard in the U.S. code to a finding of an officer's recklessness.

"The current mens rea standard of 'willfulness' has made it extremely difficult to prosecute law enforcement officers," the bill's sponsors told their colleagues.

Among the bill's other efforts:

  • It creates a National Police Misconduct Registry to track police misconduct and thwart officers from switching jurisdictions to avoid accountability. The plan also looks to improve police practices by mandating training on racial bias and the duty to intervene.
  • It also limits the transfer of military-grade weapons to state and local law enforcement agencies and requires the use of body cameras.
  • The legislation would also empower attorneys general and the Justice Department to play a much larger role in its oversight of police agencies. For example, it would create a grant program to allow attorneys general to independently investigate police misconduct and excessive use of force. And it would give the Justice Department greater powers to investigate and track cases.
  • It would also condition federal funding for state and local police agencies to their training and adoption of policies to combat racial bias and profiling, as well as ban "no-knock" warrants in drug-related cases and the use of choke-holds.
  • It also makes lynching a federal crime, a revival of legislation already approved in the House and currently stalled in the Senate following failed attempts to pass it.
  • The House could take up the measure when it is due to return June 30. However, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters last week that lawmakers could return sooner to approve the plan.

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    Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.
    Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.
    Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.