Washington: The Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee joined calls for law enforcement reform Tuesday with a declaration that “every Black man in America” fears being stopped by police.
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina reflected a bipartisan urge to act, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell raised the prospect of speeding legislation to the Senate floor as early as next week.
“Every Black man in America, apparently, feels threatened when they’re stopped by the cops,” Graham said at a hearing on police reform in response to George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police. “It’s not 99%. It’s like 100%.”
McConnell said overhauling police training and citizen rights is “an important subject that needs to be addressed” as Congress wrestles with nationwide protests over racial injustice and police misconduct. The Republican leader said he’ll announce Wednesday morning whether the Senate will turn as early as next week to legislation that will be introduced by Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only Black Republican in the Senate.
Whether Senate Democrats will go along with Scott’s measure is an open question. They’ve already proposed legislation with House Democrats that would make it easier to prosecute and sue law enforcement officers, bar federal officers from using chokeholds and set a national standard on the use of force. The House plans to vote on its measure next week.
At the Judiciary hearing, Graham questioned whether it’s too hard to fire a police officer and whether so-called qualified immunity needs to be revised, and he said that it’s “time to move on from chokeholds.”
Democratic Senator Kamala Harris said national policing standards in an executive order signed Tuesday by President Donald Trump were “watered-down proposals that won’t hold any officers accountable.”
“This is not enough,” Harris of California said. “This does not meet the moment.”
The president said a new credentialing process for law enforcement agencies will urge them to train officers with modern use-of-force standards and de-escalation tactics, and limit the use of chokeholds to incidents in which lethal force is allowed by law.
Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, who is Black, said at the hearing that guns have been drawn on him and he’s been accused of stealing things, as have many African-American members of the congressional staff.
Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the Judiciary panel’s top Democrat, said Attorney General William Barr should be called to testify on his abandonment of “pattern-and-practice cases” against police departments with repeated problems “and specifically why the department has declined to open a broader investigation into police misconduct within the Minneapolis police department.”
A source of tension over police standards is whether changes should be made to legal protections for police officers who use force against, or kill, individuals they encounter while on duty.
Police leaders said they don’t rule out making some changes to the qualified immunity that protects officers from most lawsuits, but didn’t advocate eliminating it.
“If qualified immunity were eliminated, I think that would be dangerous to our profession,” said Police Chief Steven Casstevens, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and police chief in Buffalo Grove, Illinois. “If they in fact committed a crime or if they violate the constitutional rights of someone, then they’re on their own.”
Casstevens also said “the answer is not defunding the police” but funding social, mental and economic development efforts that have been cut. “By default, police agencies have been forced to fill that void,” he said.
The votes of at least seven Senate Democrats would be needed to bring up Scott’s bill in the full chamber. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters Tuesday that he can’t comment about Scott’s proposal until it’s completed. But he said he was concerned that it won’t include tough enough provisions including a ban on chokeholds, and that he can’t back something that makes “changes around the margins.”
“Congress needs to pass strong, bold legislation that improves accountability and training in our nation’s police departments,” Schumer told reporters in the Capitol. He said Trump “must commit to signing such a bill into law.”
GOP Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana told reporters he won’t vote for a bill that eliminates qualified immunity. Kennedy said he supports ending the use of chokeholds except when an officer might be at great risk and would otherwise be overpowered by a suspect.
“In the vast majority of cases a chokehold is not appropriate,” Kennedy said. “I think many of the 18,000 police forces we have across America are either prohibiting chokeholds or limit their use to instances where the officer’s life is in danger.”- Bloomberg