U.S. Sen. James Lankford joined several other Republican lawmakers Wednesday to unveil a police-reform measure—the federal Just and Unifying Solutions to Invigorate Communities Everywhere (JUSTICE) Act—that supporters say will reduce abuses and improve community relations with police forces.
“Too often we’re having a discussion in this nation about ‘are you supporting the law-enforcement community or are you supporting communities of color?’” said U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, a South Caroline Republican who is one of three black lawmakers in the Senate and a leader on the police-reform issue. “This is a false binary choice. The answer to the question of which side do you support: It’s ‘I support America.’ And if you support America, you support restoring the confidence that communities of color have in institutions of authority. If you support America, that means you know that the overwhelming number of officers in this nation want to do their job, go home to their family. It is not a binary choice. This legislation encompasses that spirit.”
Republicans said the measure includes areas of broad bipartisan agreement to improve police training, increase accountability, and provide greater transparency when officers are accused of misdeeds. Even so, Democrats quickly dismissed the effort, signaling little action will occur on the police-reform issue in Congress this year.
The JUSTICE Act, touted as the “most significant police reform bill in 25 years,” would address police training methods and tactics throughout law enforcement jurisdictions, especially regarding de-escalation of force and the duty to intervene, provide law enforcement with new funding to do so, and end the practice of utilizing chokeholds, according to Senate Republicans.
The legislation would also provide more resources to ensure the makeup of police departments more closely matches the communities they serve. The JUSTICE Act would also pay for the use of more body cameras by police officers and require preservation of the resulting footage.
The bill would require all police jurisdictions to report to the Federal Bureau of Investigation any incident in which an officer has discharged his or her weapon or used force. The JUSTICE Act also requires reporting on the use of “no knock” warrants.
“Today, only 40 percent of the departments report that information to the FBI,” Scott said. “We want all that information because when we hear about the Breonna Taylor case in Louisville, Kentucky, we don’t have information about no-knock warrants. So for us to start a conversation with banning ‘no knocks’ doesn’t sound like a solid position based on any data—because we don’t have that data. Once we have the information, we can then turn to the training that is necessary to de-escalate situations.”
Taylor was killed during a police drug raid at her home in Louisville. Police were investigating the suspected sale of drugs from a house more than 10 miles away because Taylor had a prior relationship with one of the suspects. Taylor’s boyfriend Kenneth Walker, who was licensed to carry a firearm, fired at the officers, who he said he believed to be intruders. Police fired over 20 shots in response, killing Taylor. No drugs were found in Taylor’s apartment.
The JUSTICE Act would also make lynching a federal crime.
“This is about making a law, not just making a point,” said Lankford, R-Oklahoma City. “This is not messaging. This is trying to be able to work in the most bipartisan way we can work, get it on the floor. Let’s have amendments. Let’s talk through the process. Equal justice under the law shouldn’t be a partisan issue.”
Lankford said one section of the bill was suggested by a black police officer in Oklahoma City. That provision provides grants to help police departments hire more black recruiters and attract more minority applicants.
U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, a Minnesota Republican who served more than two decades as a police officer and was even shot in the head during that service, appeared with Senate Republicans in support of the bill.
“As someone who swore an oath to serve and protect my community, I was devastated watching the video of George Floyd, dying at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer who swore that same oath,” Stauber said. “What I saw in that video goes against everything I stood for as a police officer. George Floyd’s life mattered, and the best way to honor his memory is by enacting meaningful and lasting change within policing.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he would schedule the JUSTICE Act for a floor hearing within the next two weeks.
“Floor time is the coin of the realm in the Senate because it does take a while to do almost anything,” McConnell said.
However, Democrats will have to vote to allow debate on the bill to proceed under the chamber’s parliamentary rules.
“Our Democratic friends, if they want to make a law and not just try to make a point, I hope they will join us in getting on the bill and trying to move forward in the way the Senate does move forward when it’s trying to actually get an outcome, rather than just sparring back and forth,” McConnell said.
Earlier this week, U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, a New York lawmaker who leads that chamber’s Democratic caucus, tweeted, “Congress must act to pass bold policing reform” and said President Trump “must sign it into law.”
But shortly after Republicans unveiled their proposal, Schumer dismissed the plan on the Senate floor.
“What’s clear is that the Senate Republican proposal on policing does not rise to the moment,” Schumer said.
Schumer said a House Democratic plan includes a ban on no-knock warrants, rather than collecting data before restricting the activity as Senate Republicans advocate. Schumer argued the House Democrat plan includes a national database on bad cops and dismissed the Republican plan as one that would shield information from public scrutiny. Schumer also said the Democratic plan includes stronger language banning the use of chokeholds. He also called for adding language to outlaw racial profiling, address “militarization of local police departments,” and repeal qualified-immunity protections that keep officers from being sued as individuals.
“Real change comes with accountability,” Schumer said. “As drafted, the Republican bill doesn’t provide it.”
During their press conference, Republicans appeared to anticipate Schumer’s arguments and preemptively addressed several of them.
U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., called the JUSTICE Act “the starting point of a whole bunch of consensus issues, and once you are on a bill, we can debate how to make it even better.”
“There are a bunch of things that a lot of us think need to be done to hold local police unions more accountable and make them on the side of trying to improve local law enforcement, not spend a big chunk of their time—as many, many unions have done historically, many police unions have done—protecting bad apples and sort of moving around folks and hiding the records of folks who got into trouble,” Sasse said. “There are a lot more debates that we could have that are more controversial. There are important debates to be had about qualified immunity. Let’s have those debates as debates and let’s have votes on some of that stuff. But we ought to be voting 100-0 to get on this bill next week and try to make it better.”
“This is about transparency,” Lankford said. “This is about trying to provide information to law enforcement and to individuals. This is about accountability. But it’s also about trying to build that ‘more perfect union’ that we can have. If we are going to have equal justice under the law, then let’s work toward actually having equal justice under the law for all people.”
“If we don’t have the votes on a motion to proceed,” Scott said, “that means that politics is more important than restoring confidence in communities of color in the institutions of authority.”