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Amid the Tumult, Congressional Democrats Take on Policing Run Amok [FEATURE]

With mass protests over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin now morphing into demands to grapple with racism and to confront a police culture where brutality is all too common, and with the anguished words of Floyd's brother, Philonise Floyd, echoing through the capitol, congressional Democrats this week rolled out their first effort to address the national uprising, the Justice in Policing Act of 2020.

George Floyd's legacy is being created right now. (Prachatia/Creative Commons)
The most comprehensive attempt to reform policing ever, the act would, according to a House Judiciary Committee press release:

  • Prohibit federal, state, and local law enforcement from racial, religious and discriminatory profiling, and mandates training on racial, religious, and discriminatory profiling for all law enforcement.
  • Ban chokeholds, carotid holds and no-knock warrants at the federal level and limits the transfer of military-grade equipment to state and local law enforcement.
  • Mandate the use of dashboard cameras and body cameras for federal offices and requires state and local law enforcement to use existing federal funds to ensure the use of police body cameras.
  • Establish a National Police Misconduct Registry to prevent problematic officers who are fired or leave on agency from moving to another jurisdiction without any accountability.
  • Amend federal criminal statute from "willfulness" to a "recklessness" standard to successfully identify and prosecute police misconduct.
  • Reform qualified immunity so that individuals are not barred from recovering damages when police violate their constitutional rights.
  • Establish public safety innovation grants for community-based organizations to create local commissions and task forces to help communities to re-imagine and develop concrete, just and equitable public safety approaches.
  • Create law enforcement development and training programs to develop best practices and requires the creation of law enforcement accreditation standard recommendations based on President Obama's Task force on 21st Century policing.
  • Require state and local law enforcement agencies to report use of force data, disaggregated by race, sex, disability, religion, age.
  • Improve the use of pattern and practice investigations at the federal level by granting the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division subpoena power and creates a grant program for state attorneys general to develop authority to conduct independent investigations into problematic police departments.
  • Establish a Department of Justice task force to coordinate the investigation, prosecution and enforcement efforts of federal, state and local governments in cases related to law enforcement misconduct.

"We have heard the terrifying words 'I can't breathe' from George Floyd, Eric Garner, and the millions of Americans in the streets calling out for change," said House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-NY). "For every incident of excessive force that makes headlines, the ugly truth is that there are countless others that we never hear about. This is a systemic problem that requires a comprehensive solution."

Protesters demanding police accountability at the White House. (Geoff Livingston/Creative Commons)
"What we are witnessing is the birth of a new movement in our country with thousands coming together in every state marching to demand a change that ends police brutality, holds police officers accountable, and calls for transparency," said Congressional Black Caucus Chair Karen Bass (D-CA). Passage of the act would "establish a bold transformative vision of policing in America," she added. "Never again should the world be subjected to witnessing what we saw on the streets in Minnesota with George Floyd."

But that "bold transformative vision" doesn't directly address one of the main drivers of fraught interactions between law enforcement and the citizenry, especially in minority communities. Police enforcing drug prohibition have arrested more than a million people a year every year since the late 1980s, with the number peaking at nearly two million in 2007 and finally declining to just under a million in 2018. Around 90% of those arrests are for simple drug possession, and around half of them are for simple marijuana possession.

The bill does call for federally banning no-knock raids -- perhaps a better term would be home invasion raids -- like the one in which Louisville police burst through the door of Breonna Taylor's home and riddled the 26-year-old black EMT's body with bullets after her boyfriend opened fire on the intruders coming through the door. Her death helped fuel the rage in Louisville and across the land. Drug law enforcement is the primary reason for federal no-knock raids.

A summary of the bill provided by the House Judiciary Committee notes that blacks are 2 ½ times more likely to be busted for possessing drugs despite using them at the same rate as whites and that they are 3.6 times more likely to be busted for selling drugs even though whites are more likely to do so, but does so only to call for an end to racial and religious profiling. Drug decriminalization, on the other hand, would radically reduce opportunities for discriminatory policing by radically reducing the number of people of all colors subject to being arrested for their choice of substances.

In a statement on the bill, the Drug Policy Alliance said it was "grateful" that the congressional leadership had filed the legislation, but that it does not go nearly far enough.

"[T]his bill fails to fully address issues like police militarization and the use of quick-knock warrants, policing practices that are disproportionately used against people of color in drug investigations," said Maritza Perez, director of DPA's Office of National Affairs. "While the bill places restrictions on programs that facilitate the transfer of military equipment to local police departments, it does not outright put an end to such programs. And while this bill prohibits no-knock warrants for drug cases, it does not outlaw quick-knock warrants which can be just as deadly. Moreover, the bill continues to fund police departments and the war on drugs, rather than shift resources to education, housing, harm reduction services, and other infrastructure that strengthens communities and increases public safety."

The bill needs to be toughened, DPA said, and offered to "work with Congress to improve and strengthen" it.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was also ambivalent, with a press release lauding the bill's provisions banning choke-holds, limiting use of force, and prohibiting racial and religious profiling, but also arguing that it doesn't go far enough in reining in law enforcement.

"The bill introduced today takes significant steps to protect people and ensure accountability against police violence. But the legislation also provides hundreds of millions more to law enforcement, and for the ACLU, that's a nonstarter," said senior ACLU legislative counsel Kanya Bennett.

"While many of the reforms in this bill are laudable and vital, more must be done to change the role of police in our society fundamentally," Bennett continued. "There can be no more Band-Aid or temporary fixes when it comes to policing, which is why we are calling for divestment from law enforcement agencies and reinvestment into the black and brown communities that have been harmed by over policing and mass incarceration. The role of police has to be smaller, more circumscribed, and less funded with taxpayer dollars."

"I Can't Breathe." George Floyd protest in Houston. (2C2K Photography/Creative Commons)
Still, the bill has the support of a broad coalition of civil rights organization, including the NAACP, the National Urban League, the Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights, and the National African American Clergy Network, among others.

"The National African American Clergy Network supports the Justice in Policing Bill. It affirms sacred scripture that everyone is created in the image of God and deserves to be protected by police sworn to value and safeguard all lives. Failure by police to uphold this sacred trust with Black Americans lives, requires systemic changes in policing nationwide," said Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner, Dr. Otis Moss, Jr., and Dr. T. DeWitt Smith, Jr., co-convenors of the network.

The Justice in Policing Act will move swiftly toward passage in the House but faces much bumpier prospects in the Republican-controlled Senate. While President Trump has been advocating military crackdowns on protesters, circulating conspiracy theories about senior antifa terrorists and offering himself up as "your law and order president," GOP senators led by Tim Scott (R-SC) -- the party's only black senator -- are working to craft their own version of a police reform bill. As of now, while it acknowledges the need for police reform, which is a significant step for Republicans, it looks to be an even more watered down version of the Democrat's bill.

The pressure from the streets on Congress to get something done so far shows no sign of letting up. Whether the legislative body can actually come to grips with this crisis of confidence in government and policing remains to be seen. But it's already had a very salutary taste of what could be in store if it doesn't.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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Psychotic crisis may precipitate use of force

 Police should also be required to file mental status report on use of force data, in addition to race, sex, disability, religion, age.  People who have been forced by the police into custody should undergo an evaluation by a mental health professional to rule out psychosis and to treat appropriately when necessary. 

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