Opinion: A Police Reform Crossroads

Spokeswoman Nancy Pelosi speaks as she is accompanied by other members of Congress on the steps of the Capitol House on June 25, 2020.


Rod Lamkey / Zuma Press

A wave of crime continues to rock American cities, but the outlook for Democrats is the same as it was last summer: their priority is to cut policing rather than strengthen it. Last week the House achieved that goal by passing a bill that leaves officials less room to maintain public order. Republicans counter with a compromise that preserves the worthy parts of the plan and spokesmen

Nancy PelosiA willingness to reach an agreement will reveal your party’s real interest in public safety.

The White House says the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is a step towards “restoring trust between law enforcement agencies and those in whom they are entrusted,” and some of its provisions work in that direction. A new national register of police misconduct complaints would help law enforcement agencies and researchers track trends and ensure officers’ records can be searched across departments. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is already collecting data on the use of force by most city police departments, and making this information public is in line with the federal government’s limited role in directing local policing.

However, the details of the register suggest that the real democratic goal is to lay the groundwork for legal attacks on local police. Their bill would require police authorities to provide a racist breakdown of practices such as pedestrian and traffic stops. During the Obama administration, the Justice Department pointed to the high frequency of these encounters in black and Hispanic neighborhoods to warrant federal investigations, such as the 2014 Ferguson, Missouri investigation. This approach of oversight encourages the misconception that there is racial prejudice rather than crime rates, motivates police operations in many high crime areas.

The bill also restricts the tactics that officials use to arrest suspects. It would ban federal agents’ use of arrest warrants and revoke state aid from local law enforcement agencies allowing neck braces to be used during an arrest. However, there is no data on how often these tactics are used and many law enforcement agencies say they are essential to the safe apprehension of dangerous suspects. The bill would also end the qualified immunity that protects officials from being sued for measures taken in the service, unless the courts previously deemed those measures to be inappropriate.

These risks don’t seem to matter to Democrats, who pledged to curb allegedly widespread bigotry among the police in 2020. When the bill was first introduced in June last year, Ms. Pelosi welcomed it as a step to “fundamentally change the culture of policing to combat systemic racism”.

However, the bill requires 60 votes to pass the Senate and the Republicans are united in the opposition. The urge to end qualified immunity is “a red line for me,” Senator Tim Scott told the press last week, adding “we need to protect individual officials”. Last June, Mr Scott rallied the GOP’s support for the Justice Bill, an alternative to the Democratic plan that would create a racially blind police misconduct register, limit the use of chokeholds, and require arrest warrants to be reported nationwide without knocking.

Mr Scott says his plan was about 70% in common with the Democratic approach, but then-Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer orchestrated a filibuster to block him. (Note that no one back then referred to the filibuster as a “Jim Crow relic” as the Democrats do today.) He refused to negotiate qualified immunity and other details.

Now the Democrats are giving every sign that they prefer repetition to compromise. MP Karen Bass, who sponsored the House bill, wrote off the GOP as scary criticism of how “frightening blacks will attack you if you try to contain the police”.

Mr Schumer can take the bill to the Senate during the trial that began for Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis official charged with Floyd’s murder in May. Riots over police and racial relations may recur in the press and on the streets of the city. The country could use a police compromise that won’t ignite racist flames and no further effort to beat the problem for partisan gain.

Wunderland: Public and political condemnation of the Capitol uprising is rightly practically universal. But why does condemnation of the violence committed during the Black Lives Matter protests last summer remain selective at best? Images: Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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