The police reforms that are currently stalled in the U.S. Senate are so basic, so necessary and so modest that it’s embarrassing they are not already law.
Much of what’s in the House-passed “George Floyd Justice in Policing Act” has been adopted by police in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Much of the rest has been stuck in the discussion phase for decades, having been proposed long ago by various commissions pulled together to study why Black people, especially, are so angry at police tactics that leave so many of them dead.
The answers are self-explanatory. Should police use deadly force only as a last option? Of course. Should police be banned from intentionally cutting off the blood flow to a person’s brain or oxygen to the lungs in a chokehold that can be permanently disabling or fatal? Most certainly. Should people abused by police, or the survivors of people killed by them, be able to sue officers for their excessive use of force? Yes.
These and the other items in the bill proposed by the Congressional Black Caucus and adopted on June 25 by the House express essential American values of equal justice and freedom from unreasonable government intrusion or force. If the GOP-controlled Senate were true to the Republican Party's principles, it would have passed the measure instead of shelving it.
Caucus Chairwoman Karen Bass, a Los Angeles Democrat, told The Times editorial board on Wednesday that the bill was “narrowly tailored” to save lives and achieve justice. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who joined her, boiled the situation down succinctly: “We are a loving country with a vicious and cruel criminal justice system."
The Senate has its own bill, authored by Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina. Its reforms are slight, limited mostly to fact-finding and promises to withhold federal funding from noncompliant police departments. It would keep in place the “qualified immunity” from liability that virtually exempts police from consequences for bad acts.
Both bills are powered by the national outpouring of emotion and resolve in the wake of Floyd’s killing on May 25 under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, who was later fired and charged with murder. Floyd’s death was followed by weeks of protest that brought attention to other outrageous police killings, such as the shooting death of Breonna Taylor in her own home in Louisville, Ky., in March. Police broke in without warning while exercising a “no-knock warrant” in a search for illegal drugs. None were found.
The Taylor killing represents not so much an escalation of deadly police tactics as an increasing public awareness of them. It’s well-known among the American public that Black people are more likely than others to be stopped, questioned or killed by police on the street, whether while on foot or in a car. But even staying home appears to offer little protection.
The House bill would sharply limit no-knock warrants. The Senate’s would merely require departments to report when they employ them.
The same national attention that makes worthy but stalled police reforms politically viable may also serve as an impediment to their passage. Two years ago, President Trump helped lead a rare bipartisan effort to reform the nation’s sentencing and imprisonment policies. But a similar accord on policing is far less likely given the looming election and the jockeying for advantage over a campaign issue.
Meanwhile, many police opponents now openly reject calls for the types of modest reforms proposed in the House bill in favor of a more sweeping shift away from policing. Some call for abolition of police altogether.
Critics argue that reforms merely perpetuate an unwarranted police presence in their communities. For example, the Los Angeles Police Department's leadership went from defending chokeholds — Chief Daryl Gates infamously asserted in 1982 that young Black men were injured by them because their veins or arteries "do not open as fast as they do on normal people" — to virtually eliminating them, while also updating their training and policies to guard against racial discrimination. And California last year adopted a law that permits police to shoot only when necessary. But excessive force and preventable police killings continue.
Bass, characteristically and to her credit, sees room for both transformation and reform. The “defund the police” movement, Bass told the editorial board, is a “refund movement,” to return resources — better housing, jobs and education — to communities that have suffered decades of disinvestment.
That kind of reinvestment is essential and the need is great — too great to be filled solely by a transfer of law enforcement budgets to social services. Pending broader change, though, it’s certainly time for higher standards of police conduct, better measurement of compliance and surer consequences for failure.