Key differences in the House, Senate police reform bills
House Democrats and Senate Republicans have rolled out rival police reform bills in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, an incident that sparked mass protests against police brutality and led to a national debate about systemic racism in America.
The goals of the competing bills are the same: to halt excessive force and other bad behavior by police officers.
And there is some common ground between the two bills. Both provide more funding for police body cameras and make lynching a federal crime.
But the Democratic legislation creates a much stronger role for the federal government, through bans and mandates. The GOP bill, authored by Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), the sole black GOP senator, relies on federal incentives to encourage state and local police to reform their departments, keeping with Republicans’ belief in a limited federal government.
Here are the key differences:
Both measures include language aimed at stopping officers from using chokeholds, but the House Democratic bill makes them outright illegal.
The Democratic bill would outlaw chokeholds or any maneuver to restrain an individual that restricts blood or oxygen flow to the brain, or impedes breathing.
That would apply to the chokehold a New York police officer used on an African American man, Eric Garner, before he died in 2014. A Minneapolis police officer pinned Floyd to the ground by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes; that officer now faces second-degree murder charges.
The Senate Republican bill would not outright ban chokeholds. Instead, it prevents state and local law enforcement departments that don’t ban chokeholds from receiving critical federal grants.
The GOP legislation also has a much narrower definition of a chokehold, calling it “a physical maneuver that restricts an individual’s ability to breathe for the purposes of incapacitation.” It directs the attorney general to come up with new policies to limit chokeholds “except when deadly force is authorized.”
The Democrats’ bill would effectively end the practice of no-knock warrants, which allow police officers typically working drug cases to enter a house or other premises without announcing their presence.
Democrats have pointed to the March killing of Breanna Taylor, a 26-year-old black emergency medical technician who was shot eight times by Louisville police officers who were executing a no-knock search warrant in a drug case that did not center on Taylor.
The GOP legislation would require states and localities to report the use of no-knock warrants to the attorney general at the federal level on an annual basis. The attorney general would then publish the information in a public report. Departments that fail to comply would see a 20 percent reduction in their normal federal funding.
This may be the biggest sticking point between Democrats and Republicans — and the biggest obstacle to a bipartisan deal.
The Democratic bill would change the legal doctrine known as qualified immunity, which now shields police officers from being sued by citizens who believe their constitutional rights have been violated. The legislation would make it easier for victims of police brutality to take legal action against officers and seek civil damages.
Top Republicans have said that any changes to qualified immunity is a non-starter, but Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) is expected to introduce separate legislation next week that would offer more legal options for individuals who have had their constitutional rights violated by police.
The Republican bill focuses on providing more resources to train officers in de-escalation tactics, and Scott has said he is committed to finding common ground on a “decertification” process for abusive officers even as he rejected any changes to qualified immunity.
“From the Republican perspective and the president sent the signal that qualified immunity is off the table. They see that as a poison pill on our side,” Scott said during an appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Lawmakers say they’ve seen too many cases where police officers with a track record of abusive behavior get fired and simply get hired by another police department.
Congress now wants to stop that practice. The Democratic bill calls for the creation of a nationwide federal database that would document misconduct by police in an attempt to prevent abusive officers from being rehired in another jurisdiction.
Under the Scott bill, state and local jurisdictions would have to report officer-involved shootings and other use-of-force incidents each year to the FBI, which would make those records available to the public no later than one year after the legislation is enacted.
Cities and states that fail to report these incidents would see significant cuts to federal funding.
Jordain Carney and Mike Lillis contributed.