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Republicans, Democrats present competing visions for police reform in Senate hearing

UPDATED: Wed., June 17, 2020

Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., left, talks with Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on police use of force and community relations on on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, in Washington.  (Tom Williams)
Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., left, talks with Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on police use of force and community relations on on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, in Washington. (Tom Williams)

WASHINGTON – In a hearing Tuesday, Republican and Democratic members of the Senate panel tasked with police reform agreed that changes need to be made, but they offered different assessments of the problems and contrasting visions for the federal government’s role in reining in police misconduct.

It was the Senate Judiciary Committee’s first hearing on the issue since protests against police violence and racial injustice swept the nation in past weeks in the wake of multiple high-profile killings of Black Americans. Coming just hours after President Donald Trump made his own move on police reform by signing an executive order, the hearing struck a different tone and hinted at potential room for compromise between the two parties.

In contrast to Trump, who at the signing ceremony blamed a “small number of bad police officers” for violence, some of the panel’s GOP members acknowledged systemic problems that need fixing.

The committee’s GOP chairman, Sen. Lindsey Graham, set the tone by recounting how he learned from fellow South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, the sole Black Republican in the chamber, that Scott had been pulled over by police near the Capitol “five or six times.”

“I’ve learned over the years, but particularly recently, that every Black man in America apparently feels threatened when they are stopped by the cops,” Graham said. “When I see a cop behind me the first thing I think about is ‘What did I do wrong and can I talk myself out of this ticket?’ There’s literally no fear. And I wouldn’t like to live in a country where I’d be afraid to be stopped.”

In an interview before the hearing, Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said “there clearly are racial inequities in the application of justice in the U.S.,” but he expressed concern over the federal government getting too involved in the nation’s more than 18,000 policing agencies.

“We do not want to nationalize our law enforcement,” Crapo said. “We should strengthen and support local law enforcement in this country.”

Two Democrats on the panel, Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California, played leading roles in drafting the broad police reform package their party unveiled a week ago. Scott, who is not on the committee, has spearheaded the GOP effort to craft their own bill, expected to be released Wednesday.

“This idea that there is a Republican bill and a Democratic bill, we need to look beyond that,” Booker said. “The things that are in the bill that Sen. Harris and I worked on actually have wild popularity amongst Republicans.”

Booker cited restricting the use of chokeholds and raids conducted without warning as proposals with bipartisan support. The latter, a practice referred to as serving a “no-knock warrant,” resulted in police killing Black health care worker Breonna Taylor in Kentucky in March.

Other proposals that seem to have bipartisan support include efforts to collect more data on police misconduct and improve training, but Democrats say those steps alone would be insufficient.

“If the arc of the moral universe is long and bends towards justice, we have to have the courage now to be the arc benders,” Booker said, channeling Martin Luther King Jr. “I believe the time should be now for us to make bold change or we will be back here again.”

To become law, any bill would need to get through the GOP-controlled Senate and be signed by Trump.

Republicans have balked at some of the measures in the Democrats’ legislation, including ending qualified immunity , a legal doctrine that shields police from being sued for misconduct.

But in Tuesday’s hearing, Graham openly pondered changing the doctrine, provided individual police officers would not have to pay financial penalties for misconduct. A 2014 study found that officers are virtually always indemnified in such cases, with taxpayers shouldering the costs.

“Qualified immunity’s an intriguing idea to me,” Graham said. “I don’t want the cop to lose their house, but I do want people to have to think twice, if they’ve got a police force, about how to organize it and how to train it, because that’s when change will happen.”

Before signing the executive order, which discourages the use of chokeholds and establishes a national police misconduct database, Trump encouraged lawmakers to pass legislation, although it is unclear what further steps he would support.

“Beyond the steps we’re taking today, I am committed to working with Congress on additional measures,” Trump said. “Congress has started already, and they’ll be having bills coming out of the Senate and possibly out of the House. And hopefully they’ll all get together and they’ll come up with a solution that goes even beyond what we’re signing today.”

In an exchange with Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff, president of the Center for Policing Equity, Sen. Crapo asked what the federal government could do to most effectively address violence and racial inequality in policing. Goff replied that there are two “tracks” for reform that lawmakers should pursue: more tools to hold police accountable, and rethinking public safety funding so police don’t have to respond to every kind of problem.

That second set of reforms is a focus of advocates of “defunding” police – a movement that calls for shifting funds from law enforcement to crime prevention and other efforts, not necessarily abolishing the police – and Goff appealed to the senators not to get caught up in that controversy.

“I don’t want us to be distracted by the language that is used to introduce this idea,” he said. “There is a second track that I hope will be part of a longer conversation, of how to make sure that the most vulnerable and the most forgotten communities are able to get access to resources so they don’t need to call the police in the first place. This is not a controversial position. It’s a position that police chiefs like. It’s a position that communities like. And frankly, I think, is as consistent with American values as any solution we can come out (with) from this moment.”

Crapo followed up, asking, “Is that similar to trying to assure that we can actually build the American Dream in these communities, and that will help?”

“I’m not saying that there is a deficit of hope or aspiration in vulnerable communities,” Goff replied. “I’m saying that they understand that there’s a contract … and that we, as a country, have broken it.”

Later in the hearing, a second panel of law enforcement leaders echoed some of the same concerns, although most were more resistant to the idea of major overhauls. Captain Patrick Yoes, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, agreed that cops should not be put in a position to respond to every problem.

“For years, law enforcement officers have struggled with the fact that when something goes wrong in society, the cops are called to deal with it,” Yoes said. “Police officers, in addition to protecting the public and taking bad people off the streets, are often expected to be therapists, marriage counselors, addition specialists, mental health experts, homeless advocates and spiritual advisers. The truth is that law enforcement officers do not have the adequate training to perform these functions very well.”

Throughout the hearing, Republicans and Democrats seemed to be operating with different ideas of what “racism” means in the context of policing. At one point, after a Republican senator rejected the idea of pervasive racism existing in law enforcement agencies, Booker stepped in to clarify the misunderstanding “that somehow ‘systemic racism’ means you’re accusing every single person of being racist, which couldn’t be farther from the truth.”

Booker explained the Democrats were using the term to describe how policing affects people differently based on race, not to accuse individual officers of bigotry. It was a concept that seemed to divide the two parties, but Graham signaled he wanted to do more than punish a few bad apples.

“Is policing in America systematically a racist enterprise?” he said. “I’d like to think not, because I do believe most cops are far more good than bad, but when every Black man in America believes that getting stopped by the cops is a traumatic experience, something happened, somehow, somewhere. And I’d like to have a systematic approach to problems that continue to happen over and over again.”

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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