Democrats’ policing overhaul targets prosecution standards, data collection, training
Measure would create database to track police misconduct, restrict federal funds to cities without chokehold ban
Corrected, 4:53 p.m. | House and Senate Democrats on Monday proposed policing legislation that would revamp legal standards for prosecuting misconduct, create a national database of problem officers and improve training and practices to emphasize de-escalation over use of force.
The 134-page measure, which Democrats are calling the Justice in Policing Act, is a package of several bills designed to curb police practices of racial profiling and unnecessary use of force that has led to the deaths of black Americans.
For the most part, the legislation would only directly overhaul federal law enforcement practices. It would encourage states and localities to adopt similar changes through grants and other incentives.
One exception to that is the measure would ban all law enforcement agencies from racial profiling, allowing injured parties to file civil lawsuits in state or federal district courts.
The House Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing Wednesday and planning to mark up the legislation next week, according to Chairman Jerrold Nadler. A floor vote is expected as soon as the week of June 22.
The legislation was compiled in response to nationwide outrage over George Floyd’s death in Minnesota late last month. A Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee against Floyd's neck for several minutes as Floyd repeatedly said he couldn’t breathe and then became unconscious as three other officers declined to intervene.
The four officers are now facing charges in Floyd’s death, but that has not stopped daily protests across the country. Protesters, led in many areas by the Black Lives Matter movement, are calling for more systematic changes to end racial profiling and police brutality.
The Congressional Black Caucus led the drafting of Democrats’ policing overhaul with those goals in mind. CBC Chairwoman Karen Bass called the measure “bold” and “transformative” during a press conference Monday morning announcing the bill alongside roughly two dozen House and Senate colleagues.
“A profession where you have the power to kill should be a profession that requires highly trained officers who are accountable to the public,” the California Democrat said.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, also a California Democrat, called the measure a “first step,” noting, “There is more to come.”
“We cannot settle for anything less than transformative, structural change,” Pelosi said.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer repeated his call for the Republican majority in the Senate to hold a vote on policing overhauls before July 4, but he acknowledged that Republicans so far have been mostly silent on the issue.
“Democrats will not let this go away and we will not rest until we achieve real reforms,” the New York Democrat said.
Before the press conference, Democrats gathered in Emancipation Hall to hold a moment of silence for Floyd lasting 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the length of time the Minneapolis police officer held his knee against Floyd’s neck.
The bill would update the statute for prosecuting police misconduct to make it easier to hold law enforcement officials to account.
One provision would amend the section 242 federal statue for prosecuting misconduct to change the requirement from “willfully” causing death to “knowingly or with reckless disregard.”
Another provision would change qualified immunity doctrine, which shields government officials like police from lawsuits for actions performed on the job, to take away certain defenses law enforcement uses to avoid prosecution. The measure says local or state law enforcement officers claiming they were acting in good faith or believed their conduct was lawful should not constitute immunity or defense against prosecution.
The measure would also give the Justice Department subpoena power for so-called “pattern-or-practice” investigations. Under existing statute, the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division can open independent investigations into local police departments to identify suspected patterns of excessive force, discriminatory practices and violations of the constitutional rights.
California Sen. Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor, says the subpoena power would give those investigations “teeth.”
The bill would also authorize a $100 million grant program for state attorneys general to conduct pattern-or-practice investigations.
A separate provision would authorize a $750 million grant program for states to conduct independent investigations to prosecute incidents of law enforcement using unnecessary deadly force.
In a specific response to Floyd’s death, the bill would ban federal law enforcement from using chokeholds or carotid holds. The measure would also encourage states and localities to enact similar bans by withholding certain grant funding for police from jurisdictions that don't.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, who has been leading a bill to ban chokeholds since a New York police officer used one to kill Eric Garner in 2014, said police tactics that cut off breathing are “unnecessary, unacceptable, uncivilized, unconscionable and un-American.”
“This legislation will make it unlawful,” he said.
The bill would also ban the use of no-knock warrants in federal drug cases, and encourages states and localities to do so with conditions on grant money for police.
Data and training
A central element of the bill is the creation of the first government-run national database to track police misconduct. Under the measure, the DOJ would compile and maintain the National Police Misconduct Registry with data on every complaint filed against a law enforcement officer and details on any complaints and lawsuits filed and the resolution of those actions.
The goal of the database is to ensure law enforcement officers can’t switch jurisdictions to avoid accountability, but only states that receive police grant funding are required to report misconduct complaints to DOJ. Other participation by states and localities would technically be voluntary.
The measure would mandate that state and local law enforcement agencies that receive federal grant money report all use of force data to DOJ, including demographic data about who the force was used against.
Several other provisions of the bill target police training. The measure would mandate racial and religious bias training and specify that deadly force can only be used as last resort after de-escalation techniques. Like other provisions of the bill, these mandates only apply to federal law enforcement officers and states receiving federal grant money for police.
Other provisions in the bill would limit the transfer of military-grade equipment to state and local law enforcement, require federal uniformed police officers to wear body cameras and require states receiving federal funds to mandate body camera use.
The bill would also seek to outlaw lynching by making it a federal crime to conspire to violate existing hate crime laws. A standalone measure to do this has passed both chambers but under different names. Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul currently has a hold on the House measure, named after Emmett Till.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said he’s confident that policing overhaul will pass the Democratic-controlled House but he’s not as optimistic about its chances in the Republican-controlled Senate.
“I am not confident that a body that has been unable to pass the Emmett Till anti-lynching bill will pass this bill,” the Maryland Democrat said.
Nadler and Bass said they’re talking with Republicans but none have expressed support for the bill yet.
“I will say, with 100 percent certainty that this bill will become law,” Nadler said. “If not now, then Senate Majority Leader Schumer [will pass it] and [President Joe Biden] will sign it in January.”
Not defunding police
One of the changes Black Lives Matter is seeking through its protests is for localities to spend less money on police and more on community investments that would help lift up black Americans. The demand has been shortened into a slogan of “defund the police,” although most protesters are not advocating for a complete dissolution of traditional police departments.
But President Donald Trump and many congressional Republicans are accusing all Democrats of wanting to defund police, even though only a handful, like Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, have used the slogan.
Democrats at the press conference dismissed Republicans’ attacks as “distraction,” saying the defund police debate is separate from the changes they’re seeking.
“I can’t imagine that happening in a federal way,” Bass said.
The federal government has little control over state and local police, which is why Democrats’ overhaul uses grant money to incentivize them to make changes.
“It’s a well established congressional power that you can condition grants on state and local governments doing certain things. And that's the approach the bill takes,” Nadler said.
Bass said she supports the intent behind the “defund the police” mantra — a cry for investments in black communities. She said Democrats’ bill does not include any new money for policing but it includes grants for community organizations “to have projects that begin to re-envision what policing might be about in a particular neighborhood.”
Separately, the CBC is working on what Bass called “a massive jobs and justice bill.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Sen. Harris’ career background. She is a former state and local prosecutor.