Bass, Van Hollen to reintroduce bill to reform handling of nonviolent 911 calls

Bonnie Cash

Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) and Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) on Friday previewed a revised version of their Community Based Response Act, which encourages municipalities and police departments to work with crisis prevention groups to divert police responses away from nonviolent emergency calls.

During the virtual press call, Van Hollen said that “too often calls that come in through 911 do not require a use of force response, and yet, too often, they result in unnecessary escalation and unjust deaths.”

The bill was initially introduced in the waning days of the last session of Congress but failed to gain any traction. 

It will be reintroduced next week in the Senate and the week after that in the House, Van Hollen said. 

“What this bill is designed to do,” the senator continued, “is provide federal incentives in the form of grants to cities and other local jurisdictions to develop alternatives to police response when an alternative response is more appropriate … like mental health situations or substance use disorder crises, or when people are checking in for health and safety.”

If passed, the bill would allocate $100 million per year for five years in federal grants to police departments and municipalities to craft new policies around crisis and nonviolent intervention.

Bass, architect of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, said the grants mandate community groups and stakeholders that are mental health and crises experts to be “at the table to design what the system would be like in a given geographic area.”

Both lawmakers cited incidents where police responded to someone in crisis in what they say were obvious nonviolent situations but officers ended up escalating the situation and killing the person.

Van Hollen recounted the March 2020 police killing of Daniel Prude, a Black man who was suffering from a mental health crisis while on PCP. 

After being called by Prude’s brother, Rochester, N.Y., police eventually placed a spit hood over his face and restrained him in a prone position.

Prude quickly became unresponsive, was declared brain dead at a local hospital shortly after and was taken off life support a week later.

“In the end, Daniel Prude died and I think that was a clear example of unnecessary escalation and unnecessary and unjust death,” Van Hollen said.

Proponents of police reform say that removing police from situations such as mental health crises and other nonviolent calls is critical to decreasing police killings of unarmed civilians and increasing public safety.

Last September, the Vera Institute of Justice released an analysis that looked at the type of 911 calls received by five police departments across the country.

“In all five sites, the most frequent incident type was non-criminal in nature. In four of the five, the most frequent incident type was some variation of complaint or request for an officer to perform a welfare check,” the nonprofit concluded.

A similar study by The New York Times found that across 10 police forces, the average percentage of 911 calls pertaining to a serious violent crime was just over 1 percent.   

“The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act does not address this,” Bass said of the sweeping police reform measure, adding that her bill with Van Hollen should be seen as complementary and not as a replacement.

That legislation has been at the center of the conversation around police reform since Floyd, a Black man, was murdered by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin last May. 

Bass, along with Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.), have been the main powerbrokers working on trying to make the bill a rare bipartisan success.

The California congresswoman and the White House initially set a self-imposed deadline to get the bill passed by May 25, the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s killing. 

Scott, the lone Black Republican senator, said last week that the end of June is now the make-or-break for the bill as the Congress’s summer recess quickly approaches.

“I will hold him to that,” Bass said. 

“We can’t have it linger. We know that we’re getting ready to go into the summer months, and so I say that in good spirit because we have been working together very well.”

Tags Black Lives Matter Chris Van Hollen Cory Booker deaths in police custody Karen Bass Killing of Daniel Prude Murder of George Floyd police brutality police killings police reform Police shootings Tim Scott
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