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Top CEOs endorse calls for police reform, another sign of momentum on the issue

D.C. police face protesters on June 22.
D.C. police face protesters on June 22. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

After weeks of professing support for racial justice, corporate America is wading into the debate over policing reform, calling on Congress to pass bipartisan policing restructuring before the August recess and endorsing a ban on chokeholds except when deadly force is warranted, a national police misconduct registry, and other changes.

The recommendations from the Business Roundtable, which represents the chief executives of 193 large companies, arrive as Republicans and Democrats are at a faceoff over competing bills for police reform.

America’s racial reckoning

Amid the protests over the killing of George Floyd in police custody, business leaders are under extraordinary pressure from the public and their own employees to take concrete action to combat systemic racism beyond their pledges on social media.

The set of recommendations represent a first step by business leaders to engage on police reform.

“We recognize that we’re outside of our traditional area of expertise,” AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, who leads the BRT’s racial equity and justice subcommittee on equitable justice, said in an interview.

“But this is a big deal. It’s affecting our communities. It’s affecting our economy. It’s affecting our employees in a really, really big way.”

The business lobby group supports establishing a national police misconduct registry, which would maintain disciplinary records of officers and help inform hiring decisions.

But it calls for data aggregated only at the department level to be made available to the public, rather than make individual law enforcement officers’ records searchable by the public, as the House Democrats’ bill proposes.

On the issue of “no-knock warrants,” the BRT calls for “raising the standard” for their use and requiring data reporting; the Democrats’ bill bans them in drug cases at the federal level and conditions law enforcement funding on banning the practice in drug cases at the state and local level. The GOP bill, meanwhile, requires only that state and localities to report data to the attorney general on their use.

“I’d say it kind of walks down the middle,” said Laurie Robinson, a professor of criminology at George Mason University who co-chaired President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and spoke with the Business Roundtable about its recommendations.

“I think anything like this is controversial and the fact that they have gotten into this, I have to say they deserve some kudos, because each side is going to be unhappy with them for not doing more in their direction. . . . If they can help nudge Congress into action, more power to them.”

The business leaders did not take explicit positions on some of the more contentious issues in police reform, including activists’ calls to “defund the police,” or divert funding from police budgets to social service programs.

Nor did the Business Round­table take a position on “qualified immunity,” the legal doctrine that shields officers from lawsuits, a key difference between the bill that was passed by House Democrats last week and the proposal introduced by Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), which Democrats blocked from advancing.

“We did not come into this saying where’s the deal, we came into this saying what represents reform,” Stephenson said.

Experts on police restructuring and racial equity said they welcomed the involvement of business leaders but raised questions about whether some proposals went far enough.

Such recommendations “are noise unless there’s a sustained campaign around it,” said Phillip Atiba Goff, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity. “If this is an opening offer, congratulations, because the Business Roundtable hasn’t been doing this kind of thing. If this is an attempt to close the debate and say these are the things everyone agrees on . . . that’s a very different thing.”

Doug McMillon, CEO of Walmart and the chairman of the Business Roundtable, said the group’s committee on racial justice would meet regularly to “keep the pressure on all of us to come back with changes that we can make inside of our companies, as well as more broadly to influence these systems.”

The organization is planning to run a radio and digital ad campaign calling for action on policing restructuring, and plans to engage lawmakers at the state and local level. It is also calling for the Senate to debate Scott’s bill on the floor.

The BRT’s recommendations come less than a year after the organization said public companies must do more than just maximize profits for shareholders, a move that has raised expectations for CEOs to engage more on policy debates such as gun control, climate change and immigration.

Stephenson said his committee spoke with more than 20 people from the civil rights community, police groups, mayors and legal experts to help formulate their positions.

Goff said there was not enough specificity to the recommendations for a police misconduct registry for him to know exactly what that would mean. “It can’t be used for analysis in quite the way that we would want . . . but you can use it to prevent bad or habitually bad officers from continuing to move from department to department,” he said.

The Business Roundtable’s recommendations also call for minimum decertification standards at the federal level, which would guide the process for how states decide whether to revoke the certification or license of a police officer.

Seth Stoughton, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, said that idea is important because of how much states vary when it comes to decertification. He said that since the 1960s, about 30,000 officers have been decertified, but about half of them have been in only three states: Florida, Georgia and North Carolina.

“It’s not because they’re worse, it’s because most states have pretty restrictive decertification processes,” he said.

Of the recommendations, Stoughton said, “I don’t think they’re going out on a limb here and suggesting anything crazy that hasn’t been suggested.”

But he added: “I don’t think this proposal just pays lip service to the idea of reform. I think it does engage with some of the more substantive policy proposals.”