Editorial: Do Black lives matter to Congress? The fate of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act will tell us
The death of George Floyd last May and the summer of protests that followed in its wake led members of Congress to try to mandate basic changes in police practices nationwide. But partisan and presidential-election politics prevented any bill from being enacted. That failure can be remedied by swift adoption of the reforms set forth in the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which passed the House last year but stalled in the Senate along with related bills introduced by senators from both parties.
Written by the House Congressional Black Caucus under the leadership of Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), with an identical version introduced in the Senate by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and then-Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), the Floyd bill addressed decades of racial inequity in policing, but its basic reforms should be demanded by all Americans for their own protection. Supporters of the proposal are expected to reintroduce it this term.
The bill would, for example, prohibit “no-knock warrants” — judicial orders permitting police to burst into people’s homes without warning. Police bearing a no-knock warrant last March killed Breonna Taylor in her own Louisville, Ky., apartment, an incident that has become part of the litany of police outrages against Black Americans. But all Americans are endangered and their freedom diminished by such practices.
Likewise, the measure would prohibit chokeholds of the type that led to the death of Floyd in Minneapolis last year, Eric Garner in Staten Island in 2014, and countless others. The once barely hidden racism in chokehold use has been an open subject at least since 1982, when Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates attempted to explain why it kills so many Black people. “We may be finding that in some blacks when it is applied, the veins and arteries do not open as fast as they do in normal people,” he famously said.
But again, purported racial disparities aside, police officers should not be cutting off blood and oxygen flow to any American, even those suspected of committing crimes.
Other provisions include the establishment of a federal registry of police misconduct complaints and disciplinary actions, so that officers who are fired or resign after investigations in one department don’t simply move to another.
Critics correctly note that Congress has limited power to order states, counties and cities to change their police practices. The no-knock warrant and chokehold bans, for example, would directly apply only to federal law enforcement officers. Federal grants can encourage, but cannot compel, states and local jurisdictions to comply with similar bans.
But such criticism fails to recognize the crucial role of federal leadership in setting acceptable standards for law enforcement. And some provisions — the national police registry, for example — can indeed have direct impact. A California bill to stop bad cops from jumping from department to department failed last year under pressure from police unions, and even if it is more successful in the current session, its scope is limited to this one state.
Furthermore, the Floyd Act would expressly authorize the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to issue subpoenas to police departments to determine patterns and practices of misconduct. The department used to conduct such investigations, leading to improved police practices in Los Angeles and a number of other cities, but they were ended under the Trump administration.
Former President Trump offered his own brand of police reforms with an executive order that attempted to address issues like chokeholds, but it was modest in its reach and lacked the force of a bill signed into law. Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina pushed his own bill with some of the same provisions as the House proposal, but it, too, was a victim of last year’s political jockeying over control of the police reform message.
The real question, Scott asked last year after his bill failed to get a hearing, is this: “Do we matter?” Meaning, of course, do Black lives matter in the United States?
Congress has a moral obligation to demonstrate that they do, and it can begin with sending police reforms to President Biden, who described Floyd’s death as a “turning point” in the nation’s reckoning with systemic racism Tuesday.
But beyond that obligation, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act — or any bill that includes its provisions — confronts Congress with an equally urgent set of questions. Does Congress matter? After a period in which the legitimacy of American institutions has been attacked, can it restore faith and respect by demonstrating the will to adopt modest laws that extend basic protections to all Americans? If it can’t do that now, we may be in even more trouble than we thought.
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