Theoretically, sprawling federal reform should not be necessary, because states and localities conduct most policing. In practice, federal standards would encourage and demand more from state and local officials who have resisted change.
Hearings on the bill will begin Wednesday. It would impose new restrictions on police behavior, creating a national use-of-force standard that insists that violence be a last resort, permissible only to prevent death or serious bodily injury, and that officers try to de-escalate potentially dangerous situations. The legislation would ban chokeholds, mandate body cameras and curtail the transfer of surplus military equipment to police departments.
The bill would make it easier to hold lawbreaking officers to account. Officers who violate Americans’ rights “knowingly or with reckless disregard” would be criminally liable under federal law; the current standard requires prosecutors to show that violations were “willful.” Victims of police abuse would also have an easier time suing officers for damages, which the doctrine of “qualified immunity” currently makes extremely difficult. A national registry of police misconduct would provide more information on the scope and scale of bad police behavior, and it would prevent police fired in one locality from being hired elsewhere.
The bill would provide grants to states to create independent bodies or processes to investigate law enforcement wrongdoing. The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division would also get subpoena power to conduct “pattern or practice” investigations of police forces that appear to be discriminating against minority groups. The Obama administration used such investigations to demand reforms in a number of police departments; the Trump administration has refused. So the bill also would provide money to state attorneys general to conduct their own pattern or practice probes.
Holding life-and-death powers over American citizens is a high trust; it is not anti-cop to demand high levels of responsibility and accountability. In fact, it is in the interest of the thousands of police officers who do their difficult jobs with integrity and honor.
Though the bill’s prospects look strong in the Democratic-controlled House, the GOP Senate is unlikely to embrace it. But it is good to begin a legislative process. It is also useful to provide a federal blueprint that state and local officials can begin working from, as many have and will.
The killing of George Floyd under a policeman’s knee in Minneapolis has unleashed a process that we hope will not be stalled this time. That process includes rethinking the roles and nature of policing, under the banner of “defund the police,” which at its most constructive will mean thinking of community safety in entirely new ways. But there also must be a track for reforming existing police departments, and the House bill provides a useful impetus for that.