House panel advances police reform bill

Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday advanced historic legislation to reform police practices in the wake of the death of George Floyd, an African American man who died while in police custody last month.

The partisan 24-14 vote after a marathon 11-hour markup sends the package to the full House for consideration next week — and will likely set up a clash with both the GOP-controlled Senate and White House over Congress’s role in fighting racial injustice in law enforcement.

While the two parties agree on the basic goals of the legislation — which seeks to diminish racial profiling and police brutality — they diverge on how to go about it. 

And if Wednesday’s markup was any preview, then the coming debate promises to be no-holds-barred, as Congress faces intense public pressure to reform policing in the wake of Floyd’s death; the parties jockey for political advantage just months from November’s elections; and the country reckons with a long and emotional history of racial injustice that’s sparked a landmark meditation on culture and heritage reaching far beyond Capitol Hill.

Those tensions were on full display during Wednesday’s markup, where members of the Judiciary Committee — a panel well known for partisan combat — jousted over the various provisions of the Democrats’ sweeping reform bill.  

Sponsored by Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), the head of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), the package would ban police chokeholds, mandate body cameras, make lynching a federal crime, prohibit no-knock warrants in drug cases, and establish a federal registry of officers accused of misconduct. 

Those ideas are not new — Democrats have been pushing them for years. But faced with the public outcry over Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, party leaders see a unique opportunity to break through the wall of GOP opposition that’s prevented those reforms from becoming law.  

“This is one of these time periods in history where the door is open a little bit, and we absolutely have to rush through,” Bass, a member of the Judiciary panel, said heading into the markup. “People are protesting every day, and I feel as though we have got to deliver.” 

Shortly before the markup began, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) had introduced the GOP’s alternative proposal — much narrower than the Bass package — and Republicans on the House Judiciary panel offered a series of amendments throughout the day designed to scale back the Democrats’ bill in the manner of the Senate version. 

The Senate GOP bill seeks to incentivize police departments to make changes so they can qualify for grant funding, in contrast to House Democrats’ proposal that sets national mandates on banning chokeholds and no-knock warrants as well as requiring officers to wear body cameras. Senate Republicans plan to bring their bill up for a floor vote next week. 

One amendment, offered by Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), would have restored the doctrine of qualified immunity, largely diminished under the Democrats’ bill, which shields law enforcers from civil suits for actions taken in the line of duty. Another, sponsored by Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.), would have fortified the power of law enforcers pursuing drug warrants to enter certain establishments without knocking first. 

All of the GOP amendments were defeated along party lines. 

Republicans also railed against the more fringe aspects of the recent national protests, pushing an amendment to investigate antifa — a loosely affiliated anti-fascist movement — while accusing Democrats of wanting to defund the police and turn the entire country into the police-free autonomous zone that’s emerged in Seattle in recent days.  

“We’re minimizing the damage antifa has done, we’re minimizing the victims that have been targeted by antifa,” said Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R-Pa.), who offered the amendment. “And these victims deserve to have antifa looked at.”

Democrats fired back, accusing GOP lawmakers of seeking to distract from the central issue — police violence against African Americans — with a host of unrelated proposals, from Trump’s impeachment to the conviction of Michael Flynn.  

“It is offensive to many of us when my Republican colleagues bring up random issues that have nothing to do with how we control our government from killing black Americans,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.). 

Wednesday’s debate at times became emotional as the Republican members of the panel – all of whom are white – clashed with Democrats, several of whom are CBC members. 

“As a black male who went to the fifth-best public high school in the country, who was a victim of excessive force, who has a black son, who has worries that you all don’t…and to my colleagues, especially the ones that keep introducing amendments that are a tangent and a distraction from what we’re talking about: You all are white males. You never lived in my shoes. And you do not know what it’s like to be an African-American male,” said Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), a former CBC chairman.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) objected to the notion that they couldn’t understand the issue from a personal level.

“I appreciate your passion. Are you suggesting that you’re certain that none of us have non-white children? Because you reflected on your black son and you said none of us could understand…” Gaetz began.

“Matt, Matt, stop!” Richmond said, cutting Gaetz off. “I’m not about to get sidetracked about the color of our children. …It is not about the color of your kids. It is about Black males. Black people in the streets that are getting killed. And if one of them happens to be your kid, I’m concerned about him too. And clearly I’m more concerned about him than you are.”

“You’re claiming you have more concern for my family than I do? Who in the hell do you think you are?” Gaetz said angrily.

“If the shoe fits,” Richmond replied coolly.

Floyd, 46, was killed on May 25 outside a convenience store in Minneapolis, where an officer pinned Floyd’s head to the street with a knee in his neck for almost nine minutes. Video shot by a spectator showed Floyd pleading for his life, then becoming unresponsive.  

The protests began in Minneapolis and spread swiftly around the country, then the globe. Marchers have demanded new standards of accountability for abusive officers and criminal penalties for violent offenders.  

Trump has responded by adopting a hard-line defense of the nation’s police forces, threatening to deploy the military to put down protests and launching attacks on the Black Lives Matter demonstrators, whom he characterized as anarchist “thugs.” Yet on Tuesday, he met with family members of some of the victims of police violence, and afterwards, surrounded by law enforcement officers, he signed an executive order which encourages — but does not mandate — better police practices in line with Senate Republicans’ approach.   

While the two parties profess to share similar end goals in police reform, for now they’re keeping up the pressure on each other with their competing bills. And it remains unclear how they would bridge their differences for any potential compromise.

“We don’t need a window dressing, toothless bill. We need to take action that is real,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Wednesday on CNN.

Updated: 9:38 p.m.

Tags Cedric Richmond Greg Steube Guy Reschenthaler Karen Bass Ken Buck Matt Gaetz Nancy Pelosi police reform Ted Lieu Tim Scott

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