Sen. Tim Scott says a 'path forward' on police reform in Congress can be found

Ben Kamisar

WASHINGTON — Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is leading Republicans' legislative charge to address police reform in the wake of nationwide protests over a string of killings of Black Americans by police, said Sunday that he hopes politics won't derail the "very important" conversation.

Scott didn't outline many specifics of what he believed could be included in a compromise plan in an interview on NBC News' "Meet the Press." Instead, he acknowledged the difficulties in setting a top-down approach and called for the government to collect more data on police use of force and misconduct to help guide a decision.

"Is there a path forward that we can take to look at the necessity of eliminating bad behavior within our law enforcement community? Is there a path forward? I think we'll find that," he said.

"There are approaches that are very similar and somewhat different at the same time," Scott said. "If we're that close on making progress, I hope we don't let partisanship get in the way."

For weeks, Americans have taken to the streets to protest police brutality, spurred by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

And Saturday, Atlanta's police chief resigned after one of her officers shot and killed a Black man during an incident in a fast-food restaurant parking lot.

"I certainly think the mayor decided to fire the officer, have the chief resign, in order to perhaps quell the response from the community," Scott said.

"That video is disturbing to watch, but I'm not sure that it's as clear as what we've seen around the country on some of the other issues that have driven us to the point where we're actually having a serious conversation around police reform," he said. "The conversation is necessary, very important. That situation is an outlier from what really has brought us to where we are as relates to police reform and George Floyd."

Protesters have made a variety of calls for reforms, including restricting when police could use deadly force, slashing (or, in some cases, eliminating) police budgets, curbing the use of "no-knock" warrants, banning the use of chokeholds and making it easier to sue officers accused of misconduct by addressing a legal standard called "qualified immunity."

House Democrats released their own plan last week, which would ban chokeholds, as well as no-knock warrants in drug cases. The legislation would create a central data hub on police use of force, make lynching a federal crime, provide racial bias training, create an officer misconduct registry and mandate the use of body cameras by federal officers, among other provisions.

Scott expressed doubt that the federal government could settle on a federal use-of-force standard, arguing that one would be "difficult to establish" considering the "millions of scenarios that play out."

Instead, he said, another goal could be "finding the best practices around use of force around the country and provide that clarity and guidance for those departments who may need to have a better perspective."

"We're focusing — at least I am — former police officers, current police officers and civilians to work on a commission to help us to discern what it looks like to have effective policies that lead to better outcomes in those intense, split-second decisions," Scott said. "That's what we're achieving through our commission that studies the use of force and the best practices around it."

Calling chokeholds a "policy whose time has come and gone," Scott said the House, the Senate and the president are all looking at ending them through different measures. And he said some sort of registry to track misconduct would be "on the table" at either the local or the federal level.

But he was cautious about banning no-knock warrants in drug cases because of a lack of data outlining how the warrants are served, while remaining open to the idea of banning them if the data pointed that way.

"We know nothing about no-knocks except for the Breonna Taylor situation that was tragic without question," Scott said, referring to the Louisville, Kentucky, woman who was killed in her home by police serving a drug warrant.

"I want to take the Breonna Taylor case and have an act that requires more data to be provided so we can actually come out with policies that are consistent with the best use of no-knocks or the elimination of no-knocks," he said. "We just don't have the information to get there."

And he said both sides remain in a stalemate over whether to roll back qualified immunity, a proposal that "most Republicans don't like at all."

"I think we're going to get to a bill that actually becomes law," he said.

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An unknown in the debate is the role President Donald Trump will play. He has denounced Democrats' call to slash police budgets, and his campaign is running a television spot warning of "chaos" in the streets if former Vice President Joe Biden is elected.

He has repeatedly defended law enforcement, promising to "take care of our police." And he responded to a viral video of a Buffalo, New York, police officer pushing a 75-year-old man by floating an unfounded conspiracy theory that the man "could be an ANTIFA provocateur," questioning whether it was a "set-up." The man was hospitalized after he fell to the ground and hit his head.

On Thursday, the president said he was finalizing an executive order that would address the use of force by police officers, a measure that Scott said he expected to include "strengthening a national database on police misconduct" and talks about how police and mental health professionals can respond to incidents together.

"He is engaging now in a way that is constructive and helpful," Scott said. "I think he's weighing in at the right time in a constructive manner."