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While local leaders across the country made pledges to defund the police, both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have resisted doing so. Even top Democrats such as former Vice President Joe Biden, Congressional Black Caucus chairwoman Karen Bass, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have hesitated or outright said they don’t support defunding the police.
But both Republicans and Democrats agree there’s a clear need for police reform. They just can’t agree on how to fix it, despite some overlap in legislation.
On the Republican side, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., one of three black U.S. senators, authored the GOP’s version of a police reform bill. On the Democratic side, the Congressional Black Caucus took charge in drafting the House of Representatives bill. They have similarities: Both include banning federal law enforcement officers from using chokeholds and incentivizing local and state agencies to ban chokeholds. Both attempt to curb the use of no-knock warrants in drug cases. Both seek to create a national database of police officers’ disciplinary records and use of force. Both call for studies and committees that develop better training and policing practices. Both declare lynching a federal crime.
But the bills differed significantly in achieving those goals: Democrats want an outright ban on chokeholds, and Republicans want a ban except when deadly force is authorized. While Democrats would ban no-knock warrants, Republicans want to first collect data on them. Democrats want to end qualified immunity (which protects individual police officers from lawsuits), but that’s a non-starter for Republicans. What’s glaringly missing from both bills: Police union reform, even though unions have stood in the way of past police reform.
Nearly two months since George Floyd’s death, these bills look to be going nowhere. The two parties locked heads after initial overtures to work together. Democrats rejected a motion to bring the GOP bill to the Senate floor, calling the bill “woefully inadequate.” A day later the House passed its own bill on a 236-181 vote. Every Democrat and three Republicans voted for it, despite White House instructions to Republicans to oppose it. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has indicated he’ll block the House bill from entering the Senate. Since then, House Democrats included money for their bill’s provisions in a separate appropriations bill.
Though both parties want to demonstrate they’re willing to enact police reforms, neither has made much effort in past years. An exception is Sen. Scott, who has tried to address the lack of data on police brutality for years. In 2015, Scott wrote a bill called “The Walter Scott Notification Act,” named after an unarmed black man whom a police officer shot and killed during a traffic stop in South Carolina. The bill would have required every law enforcement agency in the U.S. to report all police-related shootings and deaths to the federal government, including data on race. Currently, less than 45 percent of law enforcement agencies report such information to the FBI. Republicans shot Scott’s bill down, and Democrats stood aside. Scott reintroduced that bill several more times, even slipping it as an amendment to a 2018 criminal justice reform bill, but it went nowhere—until 2020. The GOP police reform bill that the Democrats recently rejected is an expanded version of Scott’s Walter Scott Notification Act.
Though Democrats criticize the Republican bill as inadequate, part of their own bill copies the Walter Scott Notification Act. Scott’s bill might actually have more teeth: To enforce regulations, both the GOP and House bills propose withholding (or defunding, though both parties try hard not to use that word) federal funds from noncompliant local law enforcement agencies. But Scott’s bill calls for a higher financial penalty on agencies that don’t implement police reforms (20 percent) than the House bill (10 percent).
Even Michael Harriot, an outspoken journalist at The Root, a left-leaning black online magazine, acknowledged that Scott’s bill may be better: “As someone who is not a huge fan of the Republican Party or its tactics, it might pain some to hear this as much as it pains me to say it, but the truth is, the GOP bill is more likely to stop cops from killing black people.”