Two reforms — banning chokeholds by police officers and creating a national registry of bad cops — won’t fix all that ails US police departments, and won’t meet all the demands of demonstrators who have thronged the nation to protest police violence against Black Americans. But the two proposals, which are the central components of a national policing bill unveiled by House Democrats on Monday, are a promising start to the first serious congressional effort in decades to reform policing in America.
The legislation, spearheaded by the Congressional Black Caucus, comes in response to the national outrage over the killing of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, on Memorial Day. Bystanders videotaped an officer pinning Floyd under his knee for more than eight minutes, while three other officers on the scene failed to intervene. All four officers have now been fired from the Minneapolis police and charged criminally. But Americans have had enough: The cavalier way an officer sworn to uphold the law snuffed out a Black life has distilled, in a single shocking video, all that is wrong with policing and criminal justice in America today.
Historically, policing has been the responsibility of local governments, who fund police budgets, hire chiefs, and negotiate contracts with police unions. Through their failure to confront police unions, root out racial bias, and enforce clear standards of conduct, mayors and city councils have let the crisis of police violence fester in America. And certainly, protesters must continue pressuring city halls to reform policing practices and ensure that officers who abuse their power can be held accountable.
But when it’s overwhelmingly clear that cities can’t or won’t act, a federal response is also appropriate. In 1994, spurred by the 1991 police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, Congress gave the Justice Department the authority to investigate local police departments. But the measure introduced on Monday goes further. First, the proposal would explicitly outlaw chokeholds, a maneuver that too often turns deadly. The proposed database of officers who have abused the power would be used to prevent officers fired in one jurisdiction from being hired in another. The Cleveland officer who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014 is a textbook example of how incompetent or abusive officers can bounce from one department to another: He had been allowed to resign from a suburban police department because of poor performance reviews before he landed in Cleveland, and after the shooting was rehired by another police department.
There are other proposals in the sweeping bill, including reducing the legal protections for officers that can stymie prosecutions; reforming the doctrine of “qualified immunity” so that officers can be sued for violating constitutional rights; limiting the transfer of military-style equipment to local police forces; and requiring data reporting on use-of-force incidents.
Although the Democratic House is expected to pass the legislation, its fate in the Republican-controlled Senate is less clear — and whether President Trump would approve any curbs on policing at all is uncertain. One death after another — Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, and too many more — has gone by without a serious response from Congress. The notion that cities know their own needs best — that, as former GOP senator and attorney general Jeff Sessions said, “It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies” — remains a barrier.
Still, the sight of Senator Mitt Romney, the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee, marching at a Black Lives Matter protest in Washington over the weekend sent a loud message that this time really is different. The death of George Floyd was the culmination of centuries of racism, but also decades of mismanagement of police departments. At minimum, Republicans should be able to get behind the chokehold ban and the registry. Washington can’t fix all the problems with policing in America. But strong national legislation could curb some of the most egregious abuses — and send the message to states and cities that they must act to fix the rest.
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