Congressional Democrats abandoned a push to use federal funding legislation this year to change policing practices at local and state law enforcement agencies, and instead left out controversial provisions from an omnibus spending bill that the House passed Wednesday.
The move is the latest setback in years of the party’s efforts to address law enforcement misconduct and racial bias, concerns that had been amplified in nationwide protests in 2020 after a series of high-profile deadly encounters between officers and the public.
Democrats had passed a stand-alone policing overhaul bill in March 2021, mostly along party lines. But Republican opposition stalled that legislation in the Senate. Months of negotiations for a Senate bipartisan deal fell short.
So appropriators decided to use the power of the purse instead. In a fiscal 2022 Commerce-Justice-Science spending bill introduced in July, House Democrats inserted some policy conditions on the grant money that flows to local and state police agencies.
Those agencies that wanted a share of $516.6 million in two Justice Department grant programs, among other conditions, would have to get rid of chokeholds, stop the use of “no-knock” warrants in drug cases, eliminate practices that permit racial profiling, and end contractual arrangements that prevent investigations of law enforcement misconduct.
Those provisions survived a House Appropriations Committee markup, but ultimately derailed a House floor vote because of opposition from Republicans and concerns from Democrats in swing districts.
By the time the fiscal 2022 omnibus spending bill was released Wednesday, those policing provisions were gone from the section dealing with the Justice Department.
Florida Republican Rep. John Rutherford had unsuccessfully tried to get those conditions removed from the bill during a committee markup in July, and had argued in part that agencies would be unable to comply for a year and miss out on funding.
“The original bill would have essentially defunded the police on a federal level by tying grant funding to standards that were nearly impossible for state and local law enforcement agencies to meet,” Rutherford, a career law enforcement officer and former sheriff, said through a spokesperson Wednesday.
“The way forward is through an accreditation process that grants money on the front end and holds agencies accountable to achieving certain benchmarks,” Rutherford said.
Pennsylvania Rep. Matt Cartwright, chairman of the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations subcommittee, said at a markup of that C-J-S spending bill that it was not accurate to say that it was defunding the police, since the provisions deal with grants and not mandatory funding.
At the time, Cartwright said there is a need to change policing practices by ensuring federal funds don’t support places that engage in discriminatory and harmful behavior. A spokesperson for Cartwright did not respond to a request for comment.
Last year, the National Association of Police Organizations expressed concerns in a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and wrote that “such policies should not be forced through as part of the appropriations process.”
Police unions said the “most concerning” provisions are requirements that law enforcement agencies finish or at least begin an accreditation process, and be certified by the attorney general as having met standards laid out in the bill.
That language also does not appear in the omnibus bill, and neither does a provision that would create a National Task Force on Law Enforcement Oversight “to coordinate the process of the detection and referral of complaints regarding incidents of alleged law enforcement misconduct.”
At the time the original C-J-S spending bill stalled in the House, some Senate negotiations were limping along in search of a bipartisan compromise related to the House-passed overhaul legislation.
That broader bill, dubbed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, included an end to qualified immunity for law enforcement against civil lawsuits, as well as created national standards for policing. The House had passed it on a 220-212 mostly party-line vote.
But by September, the negotiators called off the effort to find a version that would get through the Senate. New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, one of three lead negotiators, announced that every possible pathway to a bipartisan deal had been exhausted, and “it remains out of reach right now.”