There are 3 police reform plans on Capitol Hill and none of them match protesters' demands

Originally Published: 

On Wednesday morning, Senate Republicans joined House Democrats and the president in proposing a set of police reforms. The GOP legislation — sponsored by the only Black Republican in the Senate, Tim Scott of South Carolina — would create harsher penalties for use of force and a mandate reporting of such incidents, among other legislative demands. But congressional Democrats are already arguing that Scott's JUSTICE Act doesn't go far enough.

"We’ve only had the bill for a few hours and are reviewing it," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the Senate floor Wednesday morning. "But what’s clear is that the Senate Republican proposal on policing does not rise to the moment."

The JUSTICE Act would enact reform measures that everyone in Congress has already agreed are necessary, like mandating use of body cameras and requiring the FBI to be notified whenever an officer fires their weapon or uses force. It would also encourage departments to ban chokeholds — but not do so itself — except in a case where an officer fears for their life, mirroring the language President Trump used Tuesday in his rollout of his executive order on policing.

"The murder of George Floyd and its aftermath made clear from sea to shining sea that action must be taken to rebuild lost trust between communities of color and law enforcement," Scott said in a press release. The bill invokes the killings of George Floyd, Walter Scott, and Breonna Taylor, and calls for increasing transparency for officers who file false reports or fail to comply with departmental rules and regulations. It also advocates against no-knock warrants, which allow police to enter a residence without knocking or identifying themselves as law enforcement, but does not outright ban them. A no-knock warrant paved the way for officers to kill Taylor in her own home.

Scott's JUSTICE Act would also make lynching a federal crime; Republican Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) stalled the passage of a law last week that would have done so on its own. "The crime of lynching succeeded slavery as the ultimate expression of racism in the United States following Reconstruction," the bill's text reads. Despite the fact that "nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress during the first half of the 20th century," lynching is still not a federal crime, which makes it more difficult for the FBI and Justice Department to investigate these racist killings.

In the past month and a half, two Black men's bodies have been found hanging from trees in California. While local authorities initially classified the deaths as suicides, the men's families disagreed, pointing to the current moment of civil unrest and the history of KKK involvement in the area.

Alex Wong/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The proposed legislation also seeks to codify a few bipartisan efforts, including creating a Commission on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys to conduct demographic research and outlawing sexual relations between an officer and someone in custody. One notable area where the Republican bill strays from Democratic priorities, however, is on the issue of qualified immunity, which shields officers from lawsuits filed by victims of brutality. The Supreme Court recently punted on the issue as well.

The legislation appears to take a Trump-like stance on policing, given the president's executive order Tuesday, in that it favors some now-common reforms that may not really change anything. Body cameras have been in use for years, for example, yet officers routinely fail to turn them on, and even when they are on, they now regularly serve merely as documentarians of police violence, not deterrents. There's mixed evidence in general as to the efficacy of body cameras at all.

Moreover, research shows that decades of changes to police rules around the use of chokeholds hasn't really changed anything. Even though chokeholds were banned by the New York City Police Department, an officer still used one to kill Eric Garner on a Staten Island sidewalk in 2014. He was allowed to remain on the force for five years.

The talk of police reforms on Capitol Hill comes after weeks of protesters calling to defund the police — that is, pulling money out of police department budgets and put it toward health care, education, and other social services instead. Even though Democrats may disagree with Scott's legislation or Trump's executive order, their proposed bill in the House also falls short of these more radical goals, particularly on eliminating police presence in schools and fully demilitarizing departments.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) stands behind Scott's legislation, and has announced that a vote will be held next week. The White House also indicated it supports the measure.