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Tim Scott Turns Against His Own Police-Reform Plan

Tying federal grants to reform used to be his idea; now he calls it “defunding the police.”

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Last year, in the wake of George Floyd’s grisly murder at the hands of Derek Chauvin, Senator Tim Scott was filled with idealistic passion on the need for police reform. Scott, a Republican, had a pragmatic idea. Police departments would have to follow basic federal standards on some practices, like banning choke holds and no-knock warrants, or else they would lose federal funding.

Here is how Scott described his policy, in a PBS interview in June 2020:

Judy Woodruff: Well, Senator, as you know, Democrats are calling for an outright ban on certain measures, like a choke hold or the so-called no-knock warrant.

Sen. Tim Scott: Yes.

Judy Woodruff: In your proposal, you are saying these things should be tied to federal funding, that, if departments go ahead with them, they risk losing funding.

Sen. Tim Scott: Yes.

Judy Woodruff: And yet you also said today that this is something that should be debated, the choke hold should be debated, for the American people to hear.

So, it sounds like you’re open to a complete ban on a choke hold. Is that right?

Sen. Tim Scott: Well, I would say — say it this way. My legislation gets us to the position where, if you are in a law enforcement department that does not already have a ban on choke holds, you do not have access to the federal funding.

Scott was trying to stake out a compromise between the Democratic proposals to ban dangerous practices outright and the right-wing instinct to let police do whatever they want. Using federal funds as a lever, without imposing outright bans, was the middle ground.

Scott’s problem is that police unions don’t accept this middle ground. He has spent the last year negotiating a police-reform bill with Democratic Senator Cory Booker. The Scott plan of conditioning federal funds on those reforms was a centerpiece of the bill. But as the police unions refused to sign on to it, Scott himself backed away from the idea.

Speaking on CBS yesterday, Scott dismissed the notion of tying federal grants to standards as a scheme to “defund the police”:

We said simply this: “I’m not going to participate in reducing funding for the police after we saw major city after major city defund the police.” Many provisions in this bill that he wanted me to agree to limited or reduced funding for the police. That’s a lose-lose proposition …

We have about a billion dollars in grant money that goes to police. When you start saying in order to receive those dollars, you must do A, B, and C, and if you don’t do A, B, and C, you literally lose eligibility for the two major pots of money the Byrne grants and the COP grants. When you tell local law-enforcement agencies that you are ineligible for money, that’s defunding the police, there’s no way to spin that …

What I did not agree to was the cuts that come from noncompliance. When you say once again that in order for you to receive the money for the Byrne grants or the COP grants, you must do the following, and if you don’t do the following, you lose money — that’s more defunding the police. We saw that tried throughout the country.

Defunding the police is a completely different concept than the one Scott came up with and then decided he hates. Defunding the police is a policy based on reducing policing as an end in and of itself. The Scott proposal was to use funding as a lever to prod the police to adopt better and more humane practices. The goal is not to spend less money or to have less police. But since Scott could not sell the cop unions on it, he decided to depict his own idea as defunding the police.

We have seen this story before. Republican comes up with promising centrist idea. Democrats try to negotiate a law based on that idea. Right-wingers decide the idea is extreme. Eventually, Republican ends up calling his own idea dangerous and extreme.

Tim Scott Turns Against His Own Police-Reform Plan