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Policing bill authors to get action they’ve long sought

‘We don’t want to lose this opportunity,’ Maryland Sen. Cardin says of momentum for legislation after George Floyd’s death

Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Karen Bass, D-Calif., and other members of Congress raise their hands in response to a reporter's question during a news conference to unveil policing overhaul legislation in Washington on June 8, 2020.
Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Karen Bass, D-Calif., and other members of Congress raise their hands in response to a reporter's question during a news conference to unveil policing overhaul legislation in Washington on June 8, 2020. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Most lawmakers pushing for an overhaul of policing practices are speaking about meeting the moment, but members who have long advocated for policies in legislation now under consideration have a different message: It’s about time.

The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday will consider a 137-page policing overhaul package that contains several bills that have languished in Congress for years.

Taken individually, the measures have had scattershot support. But the collective package put together after the May 25 death of George Floyd has majority backing. The 225 co-sponsors are all Democrats.

The Senate is drafting its own bill, and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made clear that the House package, which he said amounts to federalizing policing issues, stands no chance in his chamber.

“That’s a nonstarter,” McConnell said. “The House version is going nowhere in the Senate. It’s basically typical Democratic overreach to try to control everything in Washington. We have no interest in that.”

Still, Floyd’s death, after a Minneapolis police officer pinned him down for nearly nine minutes, has spurred nationwide protests and given new momentum to legislative efforts that have remained stalled for years.

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And the House bill, which will be named after Floyd but reflects responses to several police killings in recent years, will serve as the beginning of negotiations on the issue. Senate Republicans will release their own text on Wednesday as a counternarrative to the House Judiciary markup.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries first introduced a bill in 2015 to outlaw chokeholds a year after Eric Garner died when a New York police officer used the tactic against him. The New York Democrat’s legislation would make it a civil rights violation for someone to apply pressure to another person’s throat or windpipe because of their race.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., and Rep. Donald S. Beyer Jr., D-Va., first introduced a bill in 2018 to require federal law enforcement officers to use body and dashboard cameras a year after U.S. Park Police fatally shot Bijan Ghaisar in Fairfax, Virginia.

Reps. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., and William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., introduced legislation on Aug. 9, 2019 — the fifth anniversary of Michael Brown’s death from a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri — to create a federal standard requiring use of force to be used as a last resort. The 2018 police shooting of Stephon Clark in Sacramento spurred Khanna’s interest in drafting legislation. California passed a similar use-of-force law a few weeks after he and Clay introduced their bill.

The bill includes all of those measures and others that Congressional Black Caucus and Judiciary members have drafted. CBC Chairwoman Karen Bass worked with Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., to sift through the various bills that members had, adding some in full, others in part, to the package.

Some provisions, like one relaxing the qualified immunity doctrine to make it easier for police to be sued for misconduct, appear to be newly drafted in the wake of Floyd’s death.

‘Been in the hopper’

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has noted the long history of the legislation as she makes the rounds on cable TV news shows.

“These are provisions that have been, bills that have been in the hopper for years for the Congressional Black Caucus,” Pelosi said Monday evening on CNN.

Lawmakers who have long pushed for the overhauls saw the fast-moving bill as a vehicle for their own language.

“We were determined, once a policing act was going forward, to make sure that the federal police was brought in line with what is routine with other police,” Norton said of her bill to require federal law enforcement to use body and dashboard cameras.

Norton said police in local jurisdictions “across the country in red and blue states alike” have adopted body and dashboard camera programs but federal police have been reluctant. The Justice Department launched a pilot program last year, but Norton said she has not received any updates and doesn’t know if the pilot is even operational.

Norton said she doesn’t understand why federal law enforcement has resisted the cameras.

“There’s no question that it protects the police as much as it protects the citizens because, without the camera, each side is left to its own devices to explain what happened,” she said.

A separate bill from Judiciary member Steve Cohen to provide grants for state and local police departments to implement body camera programs was also included in the package. His proposal creating a centralized database of deadly force incidents involving police, a system for independent prosecutors to review such incidents and grants for police training were also incorporated.

“I think now’s the time that these bills are going to get the public support they need because they’ve been brought to the front burner,” the Tennessee Democrat told CQ Roll Call earlier this month before the package was finalized.

‘In the minds of the public’

The bill also includes language from another senior Judiciary Democrat, Hank Johnson of Georgia, to limit the types of military equipment that can be transferred to local law enforcement. Johnson said he’s introduced the bill every Congress since 2014 but it wasn’t until the protests after Floyd’s death, when police lined the streets with military-grade weapons, that “it popped up front and center in the minds of the public.”

President Barack Obama issued an executive order in 2015 that implemented some of the provisions of Johnson’s bill, but President Donald Trump rescinded it in 2017, fulfilling a campaign promise to the Fraternal Order of Police.

Johnson said he hopes the FOP understands “the politics of the moment” and won’t oppose the package. Some groups pushing for police overhauls want a full ban on transfers of military equipment to police, but Johnson said his proposal strikes a balance.

“There is some surplus military property that is appropriate for accessibility by law enforcement agencies,” he said. “I wanted to get at the military-grade weaponry.”

Johnson’s bill is one of the few Democratic proposals backed by Republicans. Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., is an original co-sponsor, and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has pushed a similar measure in the Senate. The proposal’s supporters are also looking to attach it to the annual defense authorization bill.

Some of Johnson’s other bills did not make it into the package.

“I’m still working with the committee on what next steps would be,” Johnson said when asked if he’d offer amendments to add those provisions during the markup Wednesday.

Norton is also working to include language, when the bill heads to the floor, that would prevent the president from being able to take command of D.C. police.

Overcoming obstacles

The lawmakers whose earlier policing bills have languished say the obstacles were always too tough to overcome.

“We always get into the argument what is the appropriate role for the federal government,” Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin said.

Cardin has two bills that he’s pushed, with CBC members leading companion measures in the House, that were included in the Democratic package.

One would ban law enforcement from racial and religious profiling, allowing civil action for infractions and using data collection and grants to incentivize law enforcement to take their own measures to end such profiling. The other would authorize the Justice Department to work with independent law enforcement accreditation organizations to develop national standards for management and training protocols to minimize use of force.

Khanna said he’s also run into opposition from Republicans who question whether there should be a national use-of-force standard rather than just incentives for local jurisdictions to implement their own standards, which his bill with Clay also includes.

“This is the time to act,” Cardin said. “We don’t want to lose this opportunity.”

Todd Ruger contributed to this report.

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