Karen Bass is optimistic about prospects for meaningful police reform at the federal level.
Representative Karen Bass says she has faith that the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021—essential legislation that has been passed by the House but has yet to be taken up in the Senate—can become law.
Why? Despite the deep partisan divisions in the Senate, Bass says she thinks a group of Senate Republicans could side with Democrats in support of meaningful police reform. Bass, the former Congressional Black Caucus chair who is the author of the Justice in Policing act, is especially encouraged by the engagement of South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, a key Republican, with the issue.
“I am hopeful, because the group of people where we have been having just informal discussions are very sincere, and it’s a bipartisan group,” Bass told CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday. “And I believe that we want to make something happen.”
Bass spoke about prospects for passing her legislation on the eve of the closing arguments in the murder trial of the former Minneapolis police officer who knelt on top of Floyd for 9 minutes and 29 seconds before the man died. Amid last summer’s national outcry over police violence and systemic racism that followed Floyd’s death, Bass crafted the Justice in Policing Act and secured House passage, with a 236-181 vote that saw three Republicans join Democrats in supporting the measure. The Senate, then led by former majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) refused to take up the issue.
This year, Bass and her key co-sponsor, House Judiciary Committee chair Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) reintroduced the bill, and they again secured House passage—with a narrower 220-212 division. When the House voted in March on the issue, only one Republican, Texan Lance Gooden, voted with the Democrats in support of the measure. And Gooden immediately announced that his vote had been mistakenly cast.
So why is Bass hopeful? The Democratic takeover of the Senate in January is one factor. But, she also says, Senator Scott, the only Black member of the Republican caucus in the chamber, has joined sincerely with Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.) in discussions about how to reach agreement on a version of the measure that could overcome barriers to action and win Senate approval. “Senator Scott is key,” says Bass. “I think he has been a complete honest broker. It’s been very helpful working with him.”
While no agreement has been reached, Bass says “we’re continuing to work together to find a solution that will garner the supermajority that is needed to pass legislation in the Senate.”
That supermajority—60 votes—is required to secure a Senate vote under the arcane filibuster rules that so frequently stall action in the chamber.
If an agreement can’t be reached, the only hope is a move by Senate Democratic leaders to overturn the filibuster—or, at the least, to work around it in order to advance this particular measure.
Even if Booker and Scott reach a deal, it is likely that it will still be hard to get 10 Republicans to side with Democrats in order to advance the plan—and it may even be hard to keep all the Democrats on board. So filibuster reform, of some sort or another, has to be kept on the table.
Bass, Booker, and other savvy supporters of the police reform measure understand that working with Scott on the issue is helpful on several fronts. It gets a good read on what Republican support is possible. It also shows a willingness on the part of Democrats to work across party lines on the issue, which helps the argument for rules reforms if they are ultimately necessary.
What’s in the George Floyd Reform of Policing Act of 2021?
Representative Bass provided this list of key reforms contained in her legislation:
- Prohibits federal, state, and local law enforcement from racial, religious and discriminatory profiling, and mandates training on racial, religious, and discriminatory profiling for all law enforcement.
- Bans chokeholds, carotid holds, and no-knock warrants at the federal level and limits the transfer of military-grade equipment to state and local law enforcement.
- Mandates the use of dashboard cameras and body cameras for federal offices and requires state and local law enforcement to use existing federal funds to ensure the use of police body cameras.
- Establishes a National Police Misconduct Registry to prevent problematic officers who are fired or leave on agency from moving to another jurisdiction without any accountability.
- Amends federal criminal statute from “willfulness” to a “recklessness” standard to successfully identify and prosecute police misconduct.
- Reforms qualified immunity so that individuals are not barred from recovering damages when police violate their constitutional rights.
- Establishes public safety innovation grants for community-based organizations to create local commissions and task forces to help communities to re-imagine and develop concrete, just, and equitable public safety approaches.
- Creates law enforcement development and training programs to develop best practices and requires the creation of law enforcement accreditation standard recommendations based on President Obama’s Taskforce on 21st Century policing.
- Requires state and local law enforcement agencies to report use of force data, disaggregated by race, sex, disability, religion, age.
- Improves the use of pattern and practice investigations at the federal level by granting the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division subpoena power and creates a grant program for state attorneys general to develop authority to conduct independent investigations into problematic police departments.
- Establishes a Department of Justice task force to coordinate the investigation, prosecution, and enforcement efforts of federal, state, and local governments in cases related to law enforcement misconduct.
States Are Also Looking at Reforms in Policing
Here’s an interview that Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, a former Congressional Black Caucus cochair whose office took over the prosecution of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for George Floyd’s murder, did with The Nation about the need for reform at the federal, state and local levels.