Senate GOP to restrict police chokeholds in emerging bill

George Floyd

WASHINGTON — Driven by a swift-moving national debate, Senate Republicans are on the brink of introducing an extensive package of policing changes with new restrictions on police chokeholds and other practices as Congress rushes to respond to mass demonstrations over the deaths of George Floyd and other black Americans.

It’s a sudden shift of GOP priorities, with President Donald Trump signaling support. The White House will announce its own executive actions on law enforcement procedures on Tuesday, a crush of activity that shows how quickly protests over police violence and racial prejudice are transforming national politics.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opened the chamber Monday declaring that Senate Republicans are developing “a serious proposal to reform law enforcement.”

While the emerging GOP package isn’t as extensive as the sweeping Democratic proposal, which is headed for a House vote next week, it includes perhaps the most far-reaching proposed changes to policing procedures from the party long aligned with a “law and order” approach. Confronted with a groundswell of public unrest over police violence, in cities large and small nationwide, even the most conservative senators are joining the effort.

Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the sole African American Republican in the Senate, has been crafting the package set to roll out Wednesday, and said he spoke with Trump about it over the weekend. Scott warned that pushing voting into later this summer would be a “bad decision.” He has said the chokehold, in particular, “is a policy whose time has come and gone.”

The weekend shooting death of Rayshard Brooks by a white officer in Atlanta led to a renewed public outcry, more street protests and the police chief’s swift resignation.

Democrats have said the GOP package doesn’t go far enough to match the outpouring of support for reforms. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer warned Republicans not to settle for minor changes.

“Now is the time to seek bold and broad-scale change, not change around the margins,” Schumer said Monday.

Two senior administration officials told reporters that Trump’s executive order would include establishing a database that tracks police officers who have complaints about excessive use of force in their records. The officials said the president wants to keep officers facing such accusations from being able to hop from one police department to another.

The officials said the executive order would also establish a national credentialing system that would give police departments a financial incentive to adopt best practices on such things as use of deadly force. The two officials briefed reporters on the executive order on the condition that they not be identified.

With the political debate fluid, it is unclear whether the parties will be able to find common ground. The proposals share many similar provisions but take different approaches to address some of the issues. Neither bill goes as far as some activists want in their push to “defund the police” by fully revamping departments.

The debate is changing almost daily, complicated by the fall election, with the Senate Republican majority at risk. McConnell, who is up for reelection in November, is backing the GOP effort after the death of Breonna Taylor when police entered her home in Louisville. It’s a dynamic political environment in the aftermath of the killing of black Americans and the outpouring of protests and Black Lives Matter demonstrations that have overwhelmingly altered the national conversation.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to consider policing issues at a hearing Tuesday.

Central to the Republican package would be the creation of a national database of police use-of-force incidents, similar to what the president is proposing in the executive order to improve transparency so officers cannot transfer without public oversight of their records. The Democrats have a similar provision.

The GOP bill would encourage police body cameras and include a long-stalled effort to make lynching a federal hate crime.

Additionally, the Republican package is expected to restrict the use of chokeholds by withholding certain federal funds to jurisdictions that continue to allow the practice, according to a Senate Republican unauthorized to discuss the pending bill and granted anonymity.

While chokeholds have become a symbol of police brutality — and a ban is included in the Democrats’ bill — the maneuver is already banned in many departments. Police nationwide are far more likely to kill someone by shooting.

Yet the Republican bill does not go as far as the Democratic proposal, particularly on the issue of eliminating “qualified immunity,” which would enable those injured by law enforcement personnel to sue for damages. The White House has said that is a line too far. But it’s a timely issue after the Supreme Court on Monday declined to get involved, rejecting cases to take up the issue. As an alternative, Scott has suggested a “decertification” process for officers involved in misconduct.

Still, Democrats signaled a willingness to look at the Republican approach for areas of common ground.

“Nothing is a non-starter,” said Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the House’s third-ranking Democrat, on a conference call with reporters.

Democrats face criticism over activists’ calls to defund the police, and party leaders in Congress have distanced themselves from that approach. It focuses on shifting policing resources to other community services. Democrats did not include it in their bill, which instead provides grants for jurisdictions to consider new ways of policing.

Leading civil rights groups have backed the Democratic bill, but it’s unclear if the Republican proposal will be extensive enough to gain broad support.

“This is really a moral issue at this point,” said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

In an interview, she warned that any bill with “half measures” will be “woefully insufficient to meet the moment.”

At the same time, one large police union, the influential Fraternal Order of Police, said in a statement it is working with Congress and the White House on the proposals, having provided “feedback” on the Democratic bill and “substantial input” on the emerging GOP package from Scott.

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