Democrats put forward sweeping legislation Monday aimed at cracking down on police brutality and recording patterns of misuse of force across the country, the first concrete step toward action from Washington as a national movement emerges.
The legislation – which was led by the Congressional Black Caucus, Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee and Democratic Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey – comes as the country is reeling from the recent deaths of several black Americans at the hands of the police, including George Floyd, who died in Minneapolis last month after a white police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes.
“The world is witnessing the birth of a new movement in our country,” Congressional Black Caucus Chair Karen Bass said at the press conference on Monday where Democrats formally unveiled the legislation.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that Congress “cannot settle for anything less than transformative structural change.” But the proposal, which does not yet have any Republican co-sponsors, would need bipartisan backing to make it through the Senate.
The legislation is the most expansive effort in recent years to crack down at a federal level on policing practices across the US, but it is expected to face strong resistance from Republicans, police unions and local officials who don’t want Washington intervening in their policy making.
“This is a powerful movement and it has made legislation like this, that was probably impossible to do a month ago, possible,” Booker told CNN in an interview Sunday.
According to a summary document obtained by CNN, the legislation includes a ban on chokeholds, as well as the creation of a National Police Misconduct Registry “to prevent problem officers from changing jurisdictions to avoid accountability.”
The bill also incentivizes states and localities to mandate racial bias training and teach officers about their “duty to intervene.” The bill sets certain restrictions on the transfer of military-grade equipment to state and local law enforcement and requires federal uniformed police offers to wear body cameras.
It also includes anti-lynching legislation that has been languishing in the Senate. The anti-lynching bill sparked an emotional debate on the Senate floor last week when Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky attempted to amend the legislation, which he argued was too broad. Sens. Harris and Booker rose in opposition just as Floyd’s memorial service was underway thousands of miles away.
“It was just unfortunate that he would do that on that day. It was unnecessary and quite frankly just very painful to many people,” Booker said.
The legislative initiative is just the beginning of the congressional action. On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on policing and oversight. Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, is expected to testify, according to a committee aide.
The legislative effort comes as protests against police brutality and in support of racial justice have sprouted up across the country in both big cities and in rural communities. Over the weekend, thousands of marchers in Washington, DC, gathered on the National Mall. Gatherings, vigils and protests made the news from rural Montana to the streets of Portland, Maine.
“So many Americans have been taking to the streets throughout the country. Black, white, Latino, Asian, young, old, gay, straight, citizens, dreamers – people across the spectrum of the gorgeous mosaic of the American people say enough is enough, and Congress needs to hear those cries and act upon them, and that’s what House Democrats intend to do,” Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York told Dana Bash on CNN’s “Inside Politics” on Sunday.
Democrats are unveiling their policing legislation at a moment when some activists on the left are calling for broader efforts to defund the police. Some liberal lawmakers have voiced support for the movement, while others have offered more nuanced approaches to funding.
Pelosi did not answer directly when asked on Monday if she supports the local moves to defund police.
“The fact is that we do have a great deal of legislation coming down the pike that addresses some of the concerns of our communities across the country,” Pelosi said. She suggested people should “have those debates at the local level.”
“That is a local decision,” she said, but “that doesn’t say we’re going to pile more money on to further militarize the police.”
Republicans have yet to signal an embrace of the Democratic policing legislation unveiled Monday. While Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced last week that he would hold a hearing on police brutality on June 16, many Republicans in the Senate have argued Congress should not be setting nationalized policing policies and that instead, states and localities should take their own actions.
“This is sort of classic Washington. You have one isolated and tragic event and people extrapolate that and suggest this problem is an epidemic. And I think as terrible as what happened to Mr. Floyd was and as much as he and his family deserve justice, you cannot paint with such a broad brush and condemn law enforcement and say this is a systemic failure,” said Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas. “This idea that all of a sudden Congress needs to put the public health crisis on hold, which, by the way, it won’t stay on hold … to deal with this is just, I think, hysteria.”
Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri said he didn’t think it was possible to come up with a nationalized, legislative response for policing.
“I don’t think you can come up with a national, enforceable response on conduct or practice, nor do I think you can come up with a national manual that really makes sense for departments,” he told CNN last week.
Jeffries rejected the Republicans’ view that Congress should sit on the sidelines.
“Some of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, on the other side of the Capitol, want to continue to bury their heads in the sand,” Jeffries said.
“In terms of the police officers that I deal with here in New York City, the overwhelming majority are good individuals who are hardworking and who are in the community to protect and serve, but we cannot deny that we have far too many brutal officers. … We have to address that phenomenon. That is why so many Americans have been taking to the streets throughout the country.”
House Judiciary chairman Jerry Nadler said he wants to have a committee vote as soon as next week.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said on Monday that Senate Democrats will “fight like hell to make this a reality” and pass the police reform legislation in the Senate, appealing directly to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“We must collectively, all Americans, raise our voices and call on Leader McConnell to put this reform bill on the floor of the Senate before July to be debated and voted on,” adding, “Leader McConnell, let’s have the debate, not just on TV and on Twitter, but on the floor of the United States Senate.”
CNN’s Clare Foran and Haley Byrd contributed to this report.