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Police Reform is a Small Step, But We Need a Big Leap

Congress Readies Police Reform Legislation

June 17, 2020


Last Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the subject of police brutality and police reform. The House convened in response to the growing support among the American public for police reform. This public support was catalyzed by the protests in Minneapolis which came in response to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Derek Chauvin, a police officer with the Minneapolis Police Department.

In the time since the Minneapolis protests, the popular support has coalesced behind calls for substantial changes to policing and community safety. Since there is no centralized organization or movement body articulating citizens’ demands, there is a lot of nuance among the different platform proposals. The “police abolition” platform of groups like Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), spurred in large part by the work of organizations like Reclaim the Block, Black Visions Collective, Muslim Anti-Racism Collective (MuslimARC), and Intellect, Love and Mercy (ILM), calls for the reappropriation of funds from police departments toward alternative measures to secure community safety. For these groups, police abolition means securing communities through community-led efforts, reinvestments in public health and education, and more just housing programs. There are also the proposals from city governments and councils dealing with public pressure. In Los Angeles, Mayor Garcetti committed to reappropriating funding from the LAPD to “communities of color”, while the Minneapolis city council committed to “disband” the MPD. Despite the radical-sounding language, these pledges will likely only result in a reconstruction of existing police forces.

The strength of these initiatives and the organizations rallying behind them will ultimately be determined by their ability to translate into meaningful police reforms. On Monday, Democrats in the House and Senate introduced their vision of what such reforms would look like: the Justice in Policing Act, a measure which, if passed, would:

  • prohibit police from using chokeholds
  • create a national registry to track police misconduct,
  • lower legal standards to pursue criminal and civil penalties for police misconduct, and
  • ban certain no-knock warrants, among other things. 

The bill is a compromise with the abolitionist proposals coming from social justice groups, though it has received the endorsement of several civil rights leaders.. Compared to the social justice group proposals, however, the Democrats’ bill is conservative. It painstakingly avoids defunding the police, whereas every abolitionist proposal calls for siphoning money from police departments toward reasonable alternatives to public safety. While some House Democrats have called for ending Qualified Immunity, a statutory procedure which effectively protects police who commit acts of violence from legal recourse, the Justice in Policing Act calls for only a modification. Despite these qualms, the Justice in Policing Act is expected to pass the House on Friday, after which it will go to the Senate, where its fate will be determined by the Republican majority.

For their part, the GOP tasked the lone black Republican in the Senate, Sen. Tim Scott, with leading their legislative efforts to reform police. Earlier today, Sen. Scott introduced their proposal. The GOP proposal does not move beyond measures such as incentivizing the use of body cameras and de-escalation training, in addition to other police reforms like improvements to the process by which police-involved shootings are reported in the federal database. This is a far cry from the Democratic proposal, let alone the abolitionist demands broadly embraced by public opinion. The jostling has already begun, as Sen. Scott called the Democrats’ bill “a non-starter” while Sen. Cory Booker called the GOP bill “heavy on gestures and light on meaningful reforms.”

At last Wednesday’s hearing, the House hosted Philonise Floyd, George Floyd’s younger brother, who spoke at length over the pain he feels regarding his brother’s murder and appealed to the Congressmembers to “make it stop. Stop the pain. Stop us from being tired.” Philonise implored the committee members to hold police officers “accountable when they do something wrong,” and he imagined a possible saving grace in the fact that his brother’s murder might end up “changing the world for the better.” 

Philonise’s sentiments are widely shared by the American public, whose support has coalesced around a call for sweeping change to policing in this country. This is the baseline with respect to which we should assess the Congressional response. Anything less is an abnegation of their responsibility to represent the will of the people.

Election Day is fast approaching, and along with the coming of November 3rd will come a judgment on which public representatives were able to listen and heed the calls from the American majority.

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