Democrats to introduce sweeping police misconduct and racial bias reform bill

Oliver O'Connell
Standing near a statue of Frederick Douglass, Senator Kamala Harris, left, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, centre, and Senator Cory Booker, right, pause during a prayer on Capitol Hill on Thursday: AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Congressional Democrats are set to unveil sweeping legislation intended to address elements of police misconduct and racial bias following the killing of George Floyd in police custody along with the deaths of other people of colour at the hands of law enforcement.

The proposed bill — currently called The Justice in Policing Act of 2020 — would make it easier to prosecute police misconduct and recover damages from officers found to have violated the constitutional rights of civilians.

Crucially, the bill will also increase pressure on the Justice Department to address systemic racial discrimination by law enforcement, The New York Times reports, having obtained a copy of a summary of the bill being circulated on Capitol Hill.

Sponsoring the bill are California’s Karen Bass, the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, which took the lead on drafting the legislation; Jerry Nadler of New York, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee; Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey; and Senator Kamala Harris of California.

It is believed that the four will introduce the legislation on Monday.

The bill would require state and local governments to introduce mandatory anti-bias training among other non-discrimination programmes.

A national register of police misconduct would be created and a ban on chokeholds and other practices that have led to deaths would be implemented.

The legislation also proposes federal standards on the use of force to make it a last resort rather than a question of reasonable use, with a focus instead on de-escalation.

The thrust of the changes to misconduct rules would see a shift from it being a crime for a police officer to “willfully” violate a person’s constitutional rights and instead doing so “knowingly or with reckless disregard”.

There would also be changes to qualified immunity rules that stop individual officers being held legally liable for damages from those whose rights they have violated.

Federal officers will be required to use body and dashboard cameras and states would be mandated to use federal funds to “ensure” their use. Also proposed is a limit on military weaponry being deployed by state and local law enforcement.

A ban on “no-knock warrants” in drug cases is also included in the bill, in light of the death of Breonna Taylor, who was shot and killed in her Louisville home during a police raid in March.

New powers would be given to Justice Department investigators, and state attorneys general would be incentivised to conduct investigations of police violations of the constitution.

A provision making lynching a federal hate crime would also be included — a current proposal is being held up in the Senate by Rand Paul.

As policing is largely managed at the local level, there are limits to what changes can be achieved by DC lawmakers.

An email to colleagues from the Senate and House Democrats that authored the bill reads: “Persistent, unchecked bias in policing and a history of lack of accountability is wreaking havoc on the black community.”

“Cities are literally on fire with the pain and anguish wrought by the violence visited upon black and brown bodies,” it continues.

“While there is no single policy prescription that will erase the decades of systemic racism and excessive policing - it’s time we create structural change with meaningful reforms.”

The final text of the bill, and even its name, are still being worked on this weekend.

While any final proposal should easily pass the Democrat-controlled House, prospects in the Senate are less clear and could involve a compromise with Republicans leading to more limited changes.

Republican Senator Kevin McCarthy of California has said that the party will work with Democrats on the legislation. It is unclear what the response from President Trump will be, given his hard line on law and order.

Nevertheless, the proposal is one of the most ambitious reforms of law enforcement ever proposed.

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