Before Congress moves further on police reform, important questions must be answered
George Floyd should still be alive today, and he would be if not for the inexcusable and reckless conduct of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Chauvin was promptly stripped of his badge, arrested, and is now waiting prosecution. I am confident that the justice system will offer him and the Floyd family a fair and proper trial that ultimately renders the proper decision.
In Washington, where the Democratic majority has never ceased from Rahm Emanuel’s commandment to “never let a crisis go to waste,” politicians of varying degrees of sincerity have seized the tragedy of Mr. Floyd’s death and subsequent demonstrations, protests and civil unrest to advocate for long-sought reforms and policy changes when it comes to police tactics. Many of these ideas are common sense and enjoy broad support. For example, the directive for specially trained personnel to primarily handle domestic matters involving the mentally ill, most non-violent family disputes, and drug-related incidents is a key component of President Trump’s new executive order on police reform. It is broadly supported by both the social workers and specialists who will assume more of these duties and the police who would re-focus their attention and time on ensuring public safety.
What has been proposed for enactment by Congress however, is far more complicated. And the consequences of getting it wrong or rushing through a half-baked policy powered by the pain and anger of the moment are a clear and present danger to law enforcement officers and law-abiding citizens everywhere. Here are the questions I want answered before Congress moves any further.
Police officers deal on a daily basis with suspects who, though unarmed, still aggressively resist arrest or compliance using their feet, their fists, or any nearby object they can get their hands on. These suspects, many under the influence of drugs or alcohol, will often fight with every fiber of their being until they are subdued and restrained. The use of non-lethal force to bring these suspects under control is not only appropriate, but ultimately beneficial for suspects by limiting the intentional use of deadly force to only a remote possibility.
So when Washington politicians want to “ban the chokehold” – a non-lethal tactic that is as old as human civilization itself, the question must be asked: do the tragic deaths of Eric Garner, George Floyd and others warrant the prohibition of a tactic that has allowed countless belligerent suspects to be subdued and neutralized without inflicting death or serious injury? Should the buffoonery of ex-cop Derek Chauvin outlaw this tactic for hundreds of thousands of other policemen and women who have and can use it responsibly to de-escalate a violent encounter?
The requirement of a warrant for law enforcement to enter a home or business is one of the foundational principles of the American republic, enshrined in the Fourth Amendment of the Bill of Rights. We empower and trust judges every day to decide whether probable cause exists to enter a private property in order to investigate a crime, arrest a suspect, or mitigate a dangerous domestic situation.
So, when Washington politicians propose to ban so-called “no-knock” warrants, the question must be asked: does the tragic death of Breonna Taylor and others justify the implementation of a policy that will allow suspects to destroy evidence, attempt to escape, or take hostages as soon as they hear that knock on the door?
The doctrine of qualified immunity for law enforcement officers is also a major topic of discussion at the federal level. Simply put, this principle ensures that sworn officers who are entrusted by their communities to enforce the law, at the risk of their own lives, should have a reasonable expectation of not being personally sued for the split-second, sometimes life or death decisions they must make in carrying out those duties.
So, when Washington politicians propose to end or restrict qualified immunity, the question must be asked: do the mistakes and crimes of some bad officers justify opening the floodgates of the trial lawyer industry on all police, and forcing every officer to measure every action they take against the risk or possibility of personally being sued? How sure can we be that removing qualified immunity won’t have a chilling effect on police officers to take necessary action to ensure public safety?
Before I came to Congress I was a dentist, not a lawyer. But I am also a husband, a father, and a lifelong resident of Southeast Texas with a lifetime of appreciation for law enforcement and what they – in particular the overwhelming majority of our police – do every day to keep our families and communities safe. As Congress considers these and other proposed changes to federal law, my door will be open to those on all sides of these issues to answer these questions and others. Instead of hurrying to get something done, we should take the time to get things right.
Brian Babin represents the 36th District of Texas.