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House votes to pass package of policing bills ahead of midterms

Sept. 22, 2022 Updated Thu., Sept. 22, 2022 at 8:55 p.m.

By Eugene Scott Washington Post

The House on Thursday passed a package of policing and public safety bills, as Democratic centrists and progressives came together on long-sought legislation with 47 days to midterm elections.

The bills – the Mental Health Justice Act of 2022, the Invest to Protect Act of 2022, the Break the Cycle of Violence Act and the VICTIM Act of 2022 – would provide millions of dollars to local law enforcement with accountability measures attached.

The legislation is the result of months of negotiations among Democrats as the party seeks to counter Republican accusations that it soft on crime – a perception Democrats acknowledge cost them seats in 2020. The bills, which garnered bipartisan support, are largely political messages as the measures are unlikely to get enough Republican support in the Senate for passage.

While House Democrats across the party spectrum managed to unite on the legislation, a handful of the party’s far-left members nearly derailed the bills Thursday on a procedural vote as they sought more police accountability. Democrats have pushed for legislation following the 2020 killing of George Floyd, a Black Minneapolis resident, by a White police officer.

Four Democrats – Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Jamaal Bowman (N.Y.), Cori Bush (Mo.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) – joined Republicans in voting no, while a fifth Democrat voted present. The vote on a rule, which set the terms of the debate on the legislation, was 216-215 in favor. A tie would have scuttled the measures.

In a statement earlier in the day, Bush complained one of the bills failed to address “the crisis of police brutality.”

Lawmakers in swing districts facing tough reelection fights had wanted votes on the bills that they could use to nullify Republican attacks that Democrats are anti-police. But liberals were adamant that any legislation must also increase police accountability provisions.

The Mental Health Justice Act of 2022, sponsored by Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., seeks to create a grant program for state and local governments to train and dispatch mental health professionals – instead of law enforcement – to respond to emergencies that involve people with behavioral health needs. The bill passed 223-206.

The Invest to Protect Act of 2022, sponsored by moderate Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., would award a grant to a local or tribal government that employs fewer than 200 law enforcement officers for equipment and programs including body cameras, de-escalation training and recruitment and retention improvement. Republicans joined Democrats in passing the bill, 360-64.

The VICTIM Act of 2022 would help law enforcement agencies establish violent incident clearance and technological investigative methods. The measure was sponsored by Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., who is trying to unseat Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. The vote was 250-178.

The Break the Cycle of Violence Act, sponsored by Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), would fund nonprofit, community and faith-based organizations that work to reduce crime. The vote was 220-207.

During House debate, Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., expressed his frustration with where the bills fall short – particularly when it comes to police accountability. But he said he would not allow “the perfect to be the enemy of the good.”

“I am confident that many of the provisions of these four bills will help save lives,” he said. “But this conversation can’t end here. We need to keep making our communities safer in new innovative and imaginative ways.”

Rep. Michelle Fischbach, R-Minn., called the legislation unnecessary and incapable of addressing voters’ real concerns about rising crime.

“This is a last-ditch effort for them to act like they’re not deeply out of touch with the country coming just in time to see the results from election polling,” she said.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, rejected any characterization that Democrats are attempting to rebrand themselves heading into a competitive midterm election with their majority control in jeopardy. She said her party is displaying its commitment to the public safety of everyone.

“This is not a last-ditch effort,” she said. “Democrats have always been supportive of law enforcement along with our civil rights friends.”

“Democrats have been at the forefront,” Lee added. “And I’m very glad to say that we don’t ask to defund the FBI. We ask to be supportive of our community.”

The latter was a reference to some Republicans, most notably Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who adopted the far-right rallying cry of “defund the FBI” after the court-ordered search last month of former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate.

Those involved with the negotiations gave credit to the Congressional Black Caucus, particularly Chairwoman Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., for moderating talks between centrist and liberal lawmakers. Liberals had joined CBC members in initially objecting to a vote for any police funding bill that did not include accountability provisions when leaders tried to pass the package over the summer.

Party leaders, the Congressional Black Caucus chair, and moderate and liberal lawmakers, including Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., reached a deal Wednesday.

The groups were able to strike a deal with moderate Gottheimer to fund police departments with 125 officers or fewer and direct some money to officer training, community safety and police accountability. The money may not be used to make new hires but can be used for signing bonuses as well as mental health efforts.

“It’s critical for policing that we have the backs of law enforcement, because every day they have ours,” Gottheimer had said.

During the debate Thursday, Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., criticized the parts of the bill that substitutes law enforcement for mental health providers in some cases, arguing that the most skilled mental health providers would still be ill-equipped to handle dangerous situations.

“A crime scene or a home experiencing a domestic violence dispute is not the setting to provide mental healthcare,” he said. “Nobody can confidently tell us they know in advance which domestic violence calls should get a mental health response instead of a law enforcement response.”

Porter defended the legislation saying that existing police departments that use mental health response units have praised the effort, claiming it allows them to spend more time enforcing laws.

“When we send police to people in crisis, we fail to get those people desperately needed healthcare and we take law enforcement away from tackling the violent crime that they are trained to take on,” she said. “This hurts everyone in our community.”

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