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Democrats unveil broad police reform bill as Floyd’s death sparks protests nationwide

Accompanied by Democratic leadership, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) unveiled policing reform and equal justice legislation in Congress on June 8. (Video: The Washington Post)

Congressional Democrats rallied Monday around broad police reform legislation, urging President Trump and Republicans to rapidly embrace measures aimed at boosting law enforcement accountability, changing police practices and curbing racial profiling.

As Democrats put forward a unified response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which has sparked nationwide protests, leading members of the party also sought to distance themselves from the growing calls from liberal activists to “defund the police” — a slogan that Trump and fellow Republicans have seized upon to portray Democrats as weak on crime.

Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said he opposes “defunding” police departments, while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said such decisions fall to local governments as she and members of the Congressional Black Caucus touted their bill at a morning news conference.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) led a moment of silence in Emancipation Hall on June 8 to show solidarity with Americans protesting police brutality. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Justice in Policing Act of 2020 would ban chokeholds, establish a national database to track police misconduct and prohibit certain no-knock warrants, among other initiatives. The bill, which has more than 200 Democratic co-sponsors, contains several provisions that would make it easier to hold officers accountable for misconduct in civil and criminal court.

Many of the proposals were crafted long ago but are garnering attention now amid the nationwide protests in response to Floyd’s death in police custody last month.

“Never again should the world be subjected to witnessing what we saw on the streets in Minneapolis: the slow murder of an individual by a uniformed police officer,” Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said at the outset of a Capitol Hill news conference at which she said the Democratic legislation presents “a bold, transformative vision of policing in America.”

Pelosi promised swift passage of the legislation following hearings in the House and urged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to take up the legislation soon after it clears her chamber.

“The martyrdom of George Floyd gave the American experience a moment of national anguish as we grieve for the black Americans killed by police brutality today,” Pelosi said, adding that the moment “is being transformed into a movement of national action” and that Trump should not stand in the way of justice.

At the White House, Trump said the nation has “the finest law enforcement anywhere in the world” but acknowledged there have been some incidents that shouldn’t have happened. He added that the police in general are “doing an incredible job” as several members of the Trump administration in recent days have dismissed the notion that there is systemic racism in U.S. policing.

He also sought to focus the politics surrounding the issue elsewhere. “We won’t be defunding our police. We won’t be dismantling our police,” he said, though no provision of the legislation would take that step.

Earlier, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany had told reporters that Trump had yet to review the Democratic legislation but that there “are some non-starters in there.” She cited a change in an immunity standard that would make it easier to sue police officers.

Later in the day, Attorney General William P. Barr told Fox News that the administration will be coming out “very shortly with our proposals on this.”

Some Democrats expressed optimism that Republicans would not be monolithically opposed to the legislation.

“I assume we will have Republican support,” said Bass, a co-architect of the proposal. She said she met last week with the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of centrists, and came away optimistic that some moderate Republicans would support the legislation.

“They were very open,” she told reporters after the news conference.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said he has already had some discussions with Republicans about the legislation, while Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) said they were in talks with GOP lawmakers.

“There are Republicans who are interested in doing something on this topic,” Booker said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I’m not in any way underestimating the challenges we have before us in getting Republicans on this entire bill.”

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who participated in the protests Sunday, was less than enthusiastic about the bill.

“The fact that it has no Republican sponsors, the fact that there was no effort to contact any us, to have us weigh in on the legislation, suggests it’s designed to be a bit of a message piece, as opposed to a real piece of legislation,” Romney told reporters Monday evening.

As the news conference unfolded, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) tweeted what he called a thank-you message to police officers.

“Democrats want to defund you, but Republicans will never turn our backs on you,” McCarthy wrote.

And, after declining to answer questions about the Democratic proposal, McConnell lashed out at the “outlandish calls” to “abolish the police” in favor of funding other social programs.

“Call me old-fashioned; I think you may actually want a police officer to stop a criminal and arrest him before we try to work through his feelings,” McConnell said in the week’s opening Senate speech.

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Officials and activists have defined the slogan “defund the police” differently, with some advocating wholesale abolishment of police departments and others suggesting more-modest steps to shift some funding from police departments to other government agencies.

In an interview with CBS News, Biden said, “I don’t support defunding the police. I support conditioning federal aid to police based on whether or not they meet certain basic standards of decency and honorableness and in fact are able to demonstrate they can protect the community, and everybody in the community.”

“Biden supports the urgent need for reform — including funding for public schools, summer programs, and mental health and substance abuse treatment separate from funding for policing — so that officers can focus on the job of policing,” he said.

At the news conference, Pelosi suggested that “defunding” was not an issue for Congress.

“That is a local decision, a local level,” she said. “But to do so that doesn’t say we’re going to pile more money on to further militarize the police.”

Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.) said Democrats should ignore the “distractors out there” and focus on the legislation put forward.

“We’re keeping our eyes on the prize, and we need that to be the story. State and local will do what state and local needs to do,” she said.

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The bill contains one proposal long sought by civil rights advocates. It would change “qualified immunity,” the legal doctrine that shields officers from lawsuits, by lowering the bar for plaintiffs to sue officers for alleged civil rights violations.

Another section would change federal law so that victims of excessive force or other violations need only show that officers “recklessly” deprived them of their rights. The current statute requires victims to show that officers’ actions were “willful.”

The bill would also expand the Justice Department’s powers to investigate and prosecute police misconduct, which sponsors contend have been undermined by the Trump administration.

It would grant subpoena power to the department’s civil rights division to conduct “pattern and practice” investigations, looking for departmentwide evidence of bias or misconduct, and provide grants to state attorneys general to do the same.

Other provisions seek to directly change police practices.

The bill seeks to ban chokeholds, carotid holds and no-knock warrants in drug cases at the federal level, while pressuring states and municipalities to enact similar prohibitions by withholding funding.

Those types of maneuvers have fueled outrage over police violence in recent days. Floyd died after then-Officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee on the 46-year-old black man’s neck for nearly nine minutes in Minneapolis late last month. Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder. Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman, was fatally shot in March by Louisville police officers serving a no-knock warrant.

To keep “problematic” officers from bouncing from one law enforcement agency to another, the bill would create a “national police misconduct registry” to compile complaints and discipline records.

The legislation also would limit the transfer of military-grade equipment to state and local authorities, and make lynching a federal crime.

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“We’re here because black Americans want to stop being killed,” Harris said at the news conference with her colleagues.

Harris and Booker, in the interview with The Post, said the legislation does not represent all the things that activists have sought but tries to address specific issues with police misconduct.

“It is a part of what is being rightly demanded, which is greater accountability and consequence for bad policing,” Harris said. “This is not sufficient; it is not even directed at a much broader issue, which is what we need to do to create safe and healthy communities.”

Before the news conference, Pelosi led the lawmakers in an extended moment of silence. The observance lasted eight minutes, 46 seconds, the exact time that Chauvin held his knee on Floyd’s neck before he died May 25. The lawmakers wore kente cloth stoles.

Before most lawmakers dropped to kneel, Pelosi read the names of Floyd and others who had died in recent years in police custody and noted the observance was taking place in Emancipation Hall, which was named for the enslaved workers who helped to build the U.S. Capitol.

House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) later referenced the length of the observance as he argued for seizing the opportunity to pass policing reforms.

“It’s a long time, eight minutes and 46 seconds. It’s a long time to be on one knee,” he said. “But for 244 years, there were plenty of knees on the necks of blacks who came to this country.”

Derek Hawkins, Felicia Sonmez and Cleve R. Wootson Jr. contributed to this report.

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