george floyd protests

Congressional Democrats Unveil Police Reform Bill

Senator Kamala Harris at presser announcing Democratic police reform bill. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In a quick move designed to not only show responsiveness to the George Floyd protests, but also to put “Law and Order President” Trump and his party on the spot, congressional Democrats have unveiled a police reform bill that takes the kind of modest steps toward changing police conduct that reflect the federal government’s limited role in this branch of law enforcement. As the Washington Post notes, the Justice in Policing Act has broad support:

Leaders of the House and Senate Democrats released the legislation, which has been drafted by members of the Congressional Black Caucus, at a Capitol Hill news conference moments after holding a moment of silence for Floyd and others.

Anyone familiar with how Congress operates knows that joint House-Senate initiatives are rare, and it’s even rarer to bypass the committee system and let a caucus draft legislation, but this is a high-priority initiative. Paul Waldman nicely summed up the key provisions:

• Changing rules on “qualified immunity,” which can make it almost impossible to sue police for misconduct.

• Banning chokeholds and other practices that can lead to physical harm or death.

• Ending “no-knock” warrants in drug cases.

• Requiring police departments to report data on use of force and creating a national database to track police misconduct.

• Creating a national standard saying force should be used by officers only when “necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury.”

• Limit the transfer of military equipment to local police departments.

More systemic reforms in how police operate — in hiring, training, deployment, and accountability — will have to take place at the state and local levels. As Waldman notes, there are roughly 18,000 police agencies in the country.

No one imagines, of course, that Donald Trump and his troops in Congress are going to embrace this bill. But it might force them to do some work of their own on how to respond to not only the Floyd killing and others like it, but to rapidly changing public opinion about the likelihood and nature of police misconduct.

Potential disunity on this issue is not limited to Republicans. The Justice in Policing Act is not going to satisfy those who want to “defund the police,” as its sponsors acknowledged, per CNN:

Top congressional Democrats are steering clear of the growing calls by activists to “defund the police,” saying they sympathize with the intent behind the movement but are concerned that the rhetoric could undercut efforts at the federal level to overhaul policing practices nationwide.

“I think it can be used as a distraction – and that’s my concern,” said Rep. Karen Bass, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and a lead sponsor of the Democrats’ new bill to impose national policing standards. “Because what I said is what I believe is the real intent, which is to address the root causes of crime.”

Among other things, this probably means Democrats would like to see some more polling on “reforming” versus “defunding” the police.

Congressional Democrats Unveil Police Reform Bill