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Congress plotting action against police brutality, racial injustices in response to Floyd death

House, Senate Judiciary panels to hold hearings, consider legislative proposals

Milk is poured into a demonstrator's eyes to neutralize the effect of pepper spray as demonstrators gather to protest the death of George Floyd near the White House in Washington on Sunday, May 31, 2020.
Milk is poured into a demonstrator's eyes to neutralize the effect of pepper spray as demonstrators gather to protest the death of George Floyd near the White House in Washington on Sunday, May 31, 2020. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Members of Congress say they plan to take legislative action to respond to the killing of George Floyd and other instances of police targeting black Americans, but there’s not yet consensus on what form that action should take. 

Lawmakers have floated a variety of proposals from symbolic, nonbinding measures to more substantive policy changes, but many of the latter are recycled proposals that have failed to advance in the past.

Floyd died on May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer pinned him down, holding his knee against Floyd’s neck for several minutes while Floyd repeatedly said he couldn’t breathe. His death was captured on video and spurred protests across the country, some of which have devolved into violence, vandalism and looting. 

Lawmakers have expressed outrage and pledged to translate their words into action. But the closest thing to a consensus proposal that’s emerged is a resolution from Rep. Ayanna Pressley that “condemns all acts of brutality, racial profiling, and the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers and calls for the end of militarized policing practices.” 

Dozens of House Democrats expressed support for the resolution on social media. Although it is a nonbinding measure that simply expresses the sense of the House, Pressley argued in an MSNBC interview Monday that it’s important for Congress to “act as the conscience for our nation.”

“Congressional intent is powerful,” the Massachusetts Democrat said. “We have used congressional resolutions in the past to assert and affirm a values frame when it comes to foreign policy, and we must do the same now in this moment when it comes to racial justice by denouncing police brutality, racial profiling and excessive force.”

Perhaps more importantly, Pressley argued that the resolution “lays the ground work for the collective action that we can take as a body on other legislative pursuits.”

Members in both chambers, mostly Democrats, have offered a variety of ideas for what Congress should pursue in those legislative pursuits. It will likely take some time for ideas to emerge that have consensus, indicating they could pass in either chamber, let alone make it through the House and Senate and be signed into law.

Any serious legislative effort is likely to go through the House and Senate Judiciary committees, both of which say they plan to hold hearings and examine potential policy solutions. No further details have been announced.  

In the House, Democratic leaders are allowing the Congressional Black Caucus to take lead on the issue, working with the Judiciary Committee. The CBC held an emergency call with its members Monday, after which the group debriefed the full caucus during one of House Democrats’ regularly scheduled conference calls. 

Democratic leaders are discussing possible legislation with members but have yet to determine a path forward for floor action, according to leadership aides who spoke on background and asked not to be named.  

Speaker Nancy Pelosi cited “a number of pieces of legislation” in an interview with ABC’s “This Week” show that was taped Saturday and aired Sunday, including the Pressley resolution as well as proposals from House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries of New York and Rep. Frederica S. Wilson, D-Fla.

Jeffries’ bill would outlaw “the application of any pressure to the throat or windpipe which may prevent or hinder breathing or reduce intake of air,” designating such force as a civil rights violation. 

The New York Democrat first introduced the legislation in 2015, a  year after Eric Garner died after an altercation in which a police officer placed him in a chokehold. Jeffries, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, reintroduced the measure in September 2019, two months after federal prosecutors declined to bring charges in the case. It has 34 co-sponsors, all Democrats, five of whom signed onto the bill after Floyd’s death. 

Wilson’s bill would create a Commission on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys to study conditions affecting that population including “homicide rates, arrest and incarceration rates, poverty, violence, fatherhood, mentorship, drug abuse, death rates, disparate income and wealth levels, school performance in all grade levels including postsecondary levels and college, and health issues.”

The measure has 93 co-sponsors, 25 of whom signed onto the bill after Floyd’s death. Florida Rep. Bill Posey, who signed onto the bill last July, is the only Republican co-sponsor. 

Several senators, including Cory Booker, released proposals or hinted how they would like to try to bring reforms to U.S. police departments. 

The New Jersey Democrat, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, laid out a framework for comprehensive legislation that includes revising federal statutes, improving transparency on police misconduct and changing police training laws.

“There’s no one singular policy change that will fix this issue tomorrow — we need an entire set of holistic reforms to improve police training and practices, and ensure greater accountability and transparency,” Booker said in a news release.

Hearings coming

House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold E. Nadler said Friday on Twitter that his panel will convene hearings and consider legislation to address what he called “gross injustices,” but did not provide details. 

“We must confront the scourge of institutionalized racism in America head-on, with urgency and action,” the New York Democrat said.

Jeffries’ bill to outlaw chokeholds is expected to be among those eventually considered by the Judiciary Committee, according to a Democratic aide.

Nadler mentioned the Jeffries and Wilson bills in an interview with The New York Times as proposals the committee was considering.

“What we are going to look at very specifically is where and under what circumstances the federal government can step in when local governments are engaging in or not stopping or controlling violence against racial minorities,” Nadler told the newspaper.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., announced Friday that he was working with ranking member Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to begin looking into Floyd’s death.

“The Committee intends to call a wide variety of witnesses on the topics of better policing, addressing racial discrimination regarding the use of force, as well as building stronger bonds between communities and police,” Graham said in a statement. “We intend 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.”

No more details regarding hearing timing or who may testify were available from the committee Monday.

Using their platforms

So far most of the congressional response to Floyd’s death has been focused on using members’ platforms to give voice to the racial injustices that have plagued the nation for decades. 

Several members have participated in protests around the country and tried to maintain the peace between police and demonstrators. Ohio Democratic Rep. Joyce Beatty was pepper sprayed as she tried to calm tensions in Columbus Saturday. 

Minnesota’s delegation has been particularly active in using social media and sending letters to pressure state and federal officials to ensure justice for Floyd.

Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith led a letter to Attorney General William Barr Friday urging the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to investigate the “patterns and practices of racially discriminatory and violent policing in the Minneapolis Police Department.”

“The City of Minneapolis has fired the officers involved and has requested that the Federal Bureau of Investigation review the incident along with local authorities,” the Minnesota senators wrote. “But that is not enough.”

The lawmakers urged the DOJ to investigate the police department and urged it to “be prepared to use the strongest tools available—including the use of court-supervised consent decrees—to ensure oversight, enforcement, and accountability on an ongoing basis.”

Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar, who represents Minneapolis, has called on the city’s police board to revoke the licenses of all four officers involved in Floyd’s death and for state officials to reject any attempts to criminalize peaceful protests.

Omar, Pressley and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — the four lawmakers known as the so-called Squad — have been fundraising through Act Blue to raise $50,000 for grassroots organizations in Minneapolis. 

As the Senate reconvened Monday, senators in both parties took the floor to encourage cooperation and engagement with community members to heal wounds on display in the nation’s streets. 

“This is an opportunity for Congress to discuss what reforms can and should be made to address police use of force,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, said.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said he expects police departments to work on adopting practices other forces have implemented to improve community relations, transparency and accountability while reducing racial violence and bias. 

The New York Democrat said there must be reforms to services helping people deal with issues unrelated to law enforcement like housing and mental health, which sometimes fall to officers to handle. He vowed Senate Democrats would be confronting these and other issues as soon as this week, noting, “many of my colleagues will prepare legislative plans of action.”

Schumer also drew parallels between the greater impact both the coronavirus pandemic and police violence have had on minority communities. He noted the urgency of both.

“We should address both these issues, COVID and police violence, this month,” he said.

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