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House passes police reform bill that faces dead end in Senate

The House on Thursday passed sweeping criminal justice reforms aimed at curbing the use of excessive force by law enforcement after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was killed by Minneapolis police one month ago.

The package was crafted exclusively by the majority Democrats — drawing howls of criticism from GOP leaders — and its passage was never in doubt, as Democrats of all stripes united in a 236 to 181 vote to send the measure to the Senate.

GOP Reps. Will Hurd (Texas), Fred Upton (Mich.), and Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.) bucked party lines and voted for the measure. 

Democrats are hoping to seize on the momentum generated by the massive protests that followed Floyd’s death to move a laundry list of police reforms they’ve pushed, unsuccessfully, for years or even decades. 

“With all of those people out protesting, this is not the time to do symbolism,” said Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), head of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and sponsor of the House bill. “We have to do substantive change.”

What happens next, however, remains anyone’s guess.

Floyd’s death on May 25 stirred a historic public outcry, sparking marches in cities across the country and putting intense pressure on Washington to address racial injustices in policing. But the parties are fiercely divided about how far Congress should go in the process, and a stubborn partisan impasse in the Senate has fueled new doubts that any deal is achievable before November’s elections.

Democrats, guided by Bass and other CBC leaders, say the moment demands a drastic rethinking of how law enforcement is conducted, with new eyes on eradicating racial disparities. Their legislation — the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act— includes outright bans on chokeholds and no-knock warrants for all federal law enforcement agencies; creates a national registry of police abuses; and makes it easier to both prosecute and sue individual officers in cases of misconduct.

Touting that aggressive approach, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the House bill, by holding abusive officers to higher account, “will fundamentally transform the culture of policing to address systemic racism, curb police brutality and save lives.”

“We don’t paint all police with the same brush,” Pelosi said on the floor shortly before Thursday’s vote. “But, for those who need to be painted with that brush, we need to take the action contained in this bill.” 

Republicans behind Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) in the upper chamber are taking a softer approach. Their legislation aims to eliminate racial profiling and police brutality, not with federal bans and mandates, but with new studies and financial incentives for state and local police departments to adopt reforms on their own. 

GOP leaders maintain the Democrats’ proposal goes too far to federalize state and local law enforcement, while eliminating legal protections that will expose officers to undue liabilities — and make it difficult for departments to find good recruits. 

Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) said the recent elimination of those legal shields in precincts around Atlanta has already threatened an exodus of officers, now applying elsewhere, “because they don’t think they can get backed up.”

“That’s what the problem with this bill is,” Collins, the former ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee who is running for Senate, said on the House floor. 

The competing bills share some overlap on key issues.

Both, for instance, provide additional funding for police training and education programs; both encourage the ubiquitous use of body cameras; and both make lynching a federal crime. 

But the differences elsewhere are stark, and Democrats have rejected the Republican bill outright, saying it’s too weak to fix the racial disparities dogging law enforcement culture — and ignores the protesters’ demands for dramatic reform. 

“What Sen. Scott has come out with has no teeth at all. It’s aspirational,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), a former CBC chairman. “It’s a recommendation to local law enforcement. And we’re past the time for recommendations.” 

In creating a national database of police misconduct, the Democrats’ bill aims to prevent abusive officers from being rehired in another jurisdiction.

The measure would also 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.

Proponents say the ban is necessary to prevent tragedies like the death of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black emergency medical technician who was killed in a botched home raid in March. Louisville police officers shot her eight times while executing a no-knock warrant in a drug case that did not center on Taylor. 

The Senate bill, by contrast, contains a requirement that police departments report instances when they use no-knock warrants.

In passing the Bass legislation on Thursday, Democratic are hoping to up the pressure on reluctant Senate GOP leaders to take up stronger reforms. And in the protesters, they see the political vehicle for making that happen. 

“It’s always public pressure that leads to transformative change,” said Bass. “So the pressure needs to keep up, and I hope it does. I hope people protest every single day — peacefully — but I hope they protest every single day.”

GOP lawmakers, though, have shown no signs of budging. They’re blasting Democrats for crafting a partisan bill initially, and then rejecting every GOP amendment as the bill moved through the Judiciary Committee this month.

“It’s really up to the Democrats,” Scott said Thursday, a few hours before the House vote. “They have to come to the table on something.”

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Democrats are holding firm — and betting on the power of public protest to move the negotiations along. 

“The Republicans in the Senate cannot be allowed — and will not be allowed — to thwart the will of the country,” Nadler said. “They must support our legislation. And I predict that, eventually — it may take awhile for the pressure to build up in the country — they will.”

Tags Brian Fitzpatrick Doug Collins Fred Upton G.K. Butterfield George Floyd George Floyd killing Hank Johnson House Police Reform Legislation Jerrold Nadler Karen Bass Nancy Pelosi police brutality Police reform legislation Tim Scott Will Hurd

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