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If Congress can’t pass police reform now, we just don’t need a Congress

Americans are angry and dying. It has to stop

Protests against police brutality, such as this one in D.C. on June 6, offer Congress a chance to be a solution, and not another problem, Murphy writes.
Protests against police brutality, such as this one in D.C. on June 6, offer Congress a chance to be a solution, and not another problem, Murphy writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

I’ve been haunted by two words since I listened to an audio recording of Rayshard Brooks running from, and then being shot in the back, by an Atlanta police officer earlier this month — every time.

The recording captured not only the sound of gunfire that killed Brooks, but also the horrified reaction of witnesses who saw the shooting happen after Atlanta police found Brooks asleep at the wheel in the drive-thru line of a local Wendy’s restaurant.  

“That’s totally unnecessary,” one bystander yells after the shots ring out. “That’s messed up, man,” yells another.

Still another screams in disgust that he had, in his words, watched the police harass Brooks for no reason.  “And then you (expletive) shoot him? … (Expletive) pigs, dude. Every (expletive) time.”

Every time. In those two words, you know that man has watched Black Americans die at the hands of the police again and again and again. Maybe the man saw it happen in his own community of Atlanta. Or maybe, like the rest of the country, he’s seen it happen in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York and Louisville, Kentucky, and Minneapolis and so many other cities so many times that there are too many to name in this column. Every time.  

Watershed moment

That drumbeat of killings, along with the videos that made them plain to the world, has brought this country to a point where a majority believe for the first time what the Black community has known all along — that even as Americans still admire most police officers, something is deeply wrong in police departments across America, no matter the region of the country, the race of the officer or what the civilian might have been doing at the time that person encountered police.  

The only good news in this terrible reality is that weeks of protests in every state in the nation and years of legislative work behind the scenes have combined to bring both Democrats and Republicans in Congress to a point where they will all act on police reform measures this week. On Wednesday, the Senate plans a procedural vote on South Carolina Republican Tim Scott’s JUSTICE Act.  And on Thursday, the House expects to vote on California Democrat Karen Bass’ Justice in Policing Act.

Whatever you do, ignore the headlines leading into the process, which pit the two approaches against each other, describing them as headed for “a clash” and an unavoidable “showdown.” There’s more to the story than that.

As CQ Roll Call’s Lindsey McPherson outlined last week, it’s true that the differences between the two bills are real and important. Bass’ bill, which House leaders have championed, would significantly relax the qualified immunity doctrine for police and give people the right to sue officers over actions they take on the job. The Bass bill would also ban racial profiling and end the use of no-knock warrants in some cases.   

On the Senate side, Scott’s bill would add funding to expand the use of police body cameras, which the senator has pushed for five years, as well as language to make falsifying a criminal report a federal crime. Scott would also make lynching a federal crime, in language similar to a measure the House passed in February.

Beyond the differences, the bills have important areas of agreement. Both would significantly increase federal data collection and reporting of police misconduct, tie federal grants to ban chokeholds, and add measures for transparency and accountability.

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The right group

While there may be vast areas of federal policy where lawmakers truly can’t tell the difference between a problem and a solution — remember the Facebook hearing? — policing and the justice system are areas where Congress has deep expertise on both sides of the aisle. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., has worked on these issues for years as the former mayor of Newark. Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., is a former police chief of Orlando. Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, are both former attorneys general of large, diverse states. And unfortunately, Black lawmakers like Scott and others know only too well the reality of intense policy scrutiny for doing nothing more than going about your life while being Black. Members of Congress actually know what they’re doing on this issue.

And believe it or not, this may also be the right group of people to pass a sober solution to a problem this intractable. While we were all focused on impeachment, a pandemic and the president’s worst tweets, this Congress passed bipartisan criminal justice reform, a trade overhaul, paid federal family leave and the roughly $2 trillion CARES Act to sustain the American economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.  They can do this too.

Six months out of a presidential election, even the politics argue for progress instead of a standoff. For Republicans facing the potential of a wave election against them, it’s a chance to show Americans they understand that federal reform of police conduct is necessary. For Democrats, it’s a chance for real, if incomplete, progress that will still give Joe Biden a chance to promise that he’ll make finishing the job of police reform the first bill he’ll take up as president.  

Americans are angry and dying. It has to stop. Please, Congress, be the solution, not another problem.  

Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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