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Democrats unveil ambitious police reform bill; McMorris Rodgers says she’s reviewing it

June 8, 2020 Updated Mon., June 8, 2020 at 10:30 p.m.

Officer Ryan Snider, demonstrates video redaction process for police body cameras in Spokane on Jan. 13, 2016, at the Public Safety Building. A proposal from congressional Democrats announced on Monday, June 8, 2020, would mandate the use of body cameras for police. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Officer Ryan Snider, demonstrates video redaction process for police body cameras in Spokane on Jan. 13, 2016, at the Public Safety Building. A proposal from congressional Democrats announced on Monday, June 8, 2020, would mandate the use of body cameras for police. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Democratic leaders from the House and Senate rolled out a broad police reform bill Monday, seeking to channel the energy of nationwide protests into changes at the federal level.

The Justice in Policing Act would improve training, ban the use of chokeholds and certain police raids conducted without warning, mandate the use of body-worn and dashboard cameras, limit the transfer of military-grade equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies and make it easier to penalize police misconduct in civil or criminal court. It would also set up a national police misconduct registry and require states to report use-of-force incidents to the Justice Department.

California Democratic Rep. Karen Bass, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said the bill “establishes a bold, transformative vision of policing in America.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., was one of 35 co-sponsors of the Senate bill. In a speech on the Senate floor Thursday, she called for the widespread outrage among her colleagues over George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis to result in concrete changes.

“Americans are telling us we need better laws on the books,” Cantwell said. “It is time that we not just speak out about injustice; it’s time that we pass new federal laws to protect the civil liberties of United States citizens and protect them from these injustices.”

The collective grief over the death of Floyd, as well as the deaths of healthcare worker Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and other Black Americans killed by police, seems to have transcended partisan lines that held firm amid past protests of police violence.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, joined protesters in a march to the White House and shared a photo on Twitter with the words “Black Lives Matter.” It represented a dramatic break from President Donald Trump, who has said the phrase is “very, very divisive” and that “a lot of people feel that it is inherently racist.”

Despite the scale of the nationwide protests, it’s unclear if police reform legislation will make it through Congress. While the unrest that followed the 2014 killing of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri led to some reforms at the state and local level, Congress passed no police reform bills at that time.

To become law, the Democrats’ bill would need to get through the GOP-controlled Senate and be signed by Trump, who took to Twitter on Monday to mock Romney’s “Black Lives Matter” post.

Bass said Sunday on CNN that there was “a lot of support” among House Republicans for the bill, though she declined to name any of them. Aides to GOP Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane and Dan Newhouse of Yakima said Monday that both lawmakers were reviewing the newly released bill.

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Republican from Vancouver, wrote on Twitter June 5, “it’s not enough for us to put out words that aren’t connected to deeds” and signaled her support for some legislative action.

Her spokesperson, Craig Wheeler, said Monday Herrera Beutler needed time to review the bill but has been exploring options for “additional law enforcement accountability, better tracking of fatal police encounters, and improved training that will equip men and women of law enforcement to do their jobs better.”

In a statement, Republican Rep. Russ Fulcher, who represents North Idaho, said he was concerned the bill would shift control of policing from local authorities to the federal government.

“As this bill is marked up in the Judiciary committee, I hope that Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi takes this process seriously,” he said, “weighing the input of all members and making it a realistic, bipartisan proposal that will actually have a chance at passing through the House, Senate, and signed by the President for meaningful change.”

Rashawn Ray, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies policing, said changes at the federal level could accomplish what local reforms can’t. He pointed to the bill’s data collection requirement and police misconduct registry as tools that could help hold officers accountable and ensure consistent law enforcement practices across the country.

“We need some standards. We need some uniformity,” he said. “With 18,000 law enforcement agencies, the fact that all of them are doing different things erodes public trust and is not a good use of taxpayer money. … One thing we know is that when there is some federal oversight, equality is more likely to be gained.”

Ray, who trains police officers as director of the Lab for Applied Social Science Research at the University of Maryland, emphasized the importance of training in implicit bias and de-escalation tactics.

“Nine out of 10 of the encounters that officers have every day are what we call social interactions, people having conversations,” he said. “The problem is that overwhelmingly, officers are trained to be more aggressive. So they come in ‘hot’ and oftentimes they escalate situations.”

“At the end of the day what I want is for police officers to get home safely,” Ray said, “as well as the person they interact with.”

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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