Representatives Joseph P. Kennedy III and Hakeem Jeffries on Monday will introduce a bill to make it easier for police to be charged with civil rights violations by changing just one word in the federal code.
The bill would require prosecutors in police brutality cases to show that an officer acted recklessly — rather than willfully — in depriving an individual of their rights. Kennedy’s office said the change would remove some hurdles to bringing charges against police and prosecuting police brutality and civil rights cases.
“It isn’t enough to simply reform our police departments, we must fundamentally change the way we police in this country. That begins by tearing down barriers to accountability when police officers violate the civil rights of Black and Brown Americans," Kennedy said in a statement. "By changing this standard from ‘willfulness’ to ‘recklessness’, we can start to bring justice within reach for any person targeted because of the color of their skin.”
Kennedy announced the legislation as congressional Democrats proposed sweeping federal police reform legislation Monday in response to the killings of George Floyd and other Black people at the hands of police. That bill would make it easier to hold individual officers accountable for police brutality and create a national database of excessive-force incidents, among other changes. House and Senate Democrats held a press conference Monday to unveil the legislation, which is likely to face opposition in the Republican-controlled Senate.
The Justice in Policing Act, unveiled Monday, includes provisions similar to what Kennedy and Jeffries are proposing. An aide to Kennedy said his proposal would go further in clarifying the standard than the Justice in Policing Act, which replaces “willfully” with “knowingly or with reckless disregard.”
Democrats say they are moving swiftly to implement reforms amid daily nationwide demonstrations against racism and police violence following the Memorial Day death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Protesters are calling for a national reckoning on systemic racism in American institutions, and want to see some law enforcement resources redirected to education and social services.
The bill from Kennedy and Jeffries, of New York, titled the Bend Toward Justice Act, is cosponsored by 23 House Democrats, including Massachusetts Representatives Katherine Clark, Jim McGovern, and Lori Trahan.
The proposal is just one of several from the state’s congressional delegation that seek to respond to the crisis in policing. Representative Ayanna Pressley has introduced a resolution condemning police brutality and legislation to end the legal doctrine of qualified immunity that shields police officers and other public officials from civil lawsuits.
Senator Ed Markey, who is facing a challenge from Kennedy in the Senate Democratic primary in September, also said last week he would file legislation to end qualified immunity.
Senator Elizabeth Warren announced last week she would introduce a bill to make it easier for federal and state governments to investigate police departments with a history of discriminatory practices.
Christina Prignano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cprignano.