Democrats' Police Reform Bill Would Ban Chokeholds But Won't Defund Cops

It would require body cameras, ban chokeholds, end no-knock warrants in drug cases, make lynching a federal hate crime, and curtail military-grade tools for police departments.
June 8, 2020, 4:18pm
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and other Democratic lawmakers take a knee to observe a moment of silence on Capitol Hill for George Floyd and other victims of police brutality June 8, 2020, in Washington, DC.

WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats unveiled a sweeping police reform package on Monday, seeking to end police brutality against Black people. But while the bill includes a bevy of major reforms, it doesn’t go as far some Black Lives Matter activists would like to see.

The bill would make substantial reforms to federal law enforcement regulations. It would require body and dashboard cameras, ban chokeholds, end no-knock warrants in drug cases, make lynching a federal hate crime, curtail the federal government’s support in giving military-grade tools to police departments, and make it easier to pursue criminal and civil penalties against police misconduct.

But the bill doesn’t push to defund or disband police departments, a core push from some Black Lives Matter groups that has begun to gain traction in some cities amid widespread protests following the police killing of George Floyd on Memorial Day.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and a number of other prominent Democrats presaged the bill’s introduction by kneeling for 8 minutes and 46 seconds — a lengthy moment of silence marking the same amount of time a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on Floyd’s neck as he slowly died.

“This moment of national anguish is being transformed into a movement of national action,” Pelosi said as she unveiled the Justice in Policing Act of 2020.

The legislation comes at an inflection point — Americans’ views of racially discriminatory policing have shifted rapidly in the past few years in the wake of a string of highly publicized police killings of unarmed Black people.

As recently as 2016, polling found that only one-third of Americans said police were more likely to subject Black people to excessive force. But a Monmouth University poll from last week showed that 57% to 33% of Americans said that police are more likely to use excessive force on Black people. Fully 78% said the anger that led to the recent protests after the fatal arrest of George Floyd is at least partially justified. And an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday found that by a 2-1 margin, Americans are more troubled by the actions of police in the killing of George Floyd than by violence that has flared at some protests.

That puts a lot of pressure on Republicans to act — and President Trump’s harsh approach to protesters in the past week appears to be hurting, not helping, his reelection chances, as he’s fallen even further behind former Vice President Joe Biden in recent polls.

But it's still unclear how far Americans will be willing to go to reform police departments. And Democrats face some political risk on this topic, even as public opinion seems to be rapidly moving in the direction of police reform. President Trump has hammered hard on “law and order,” and is seeking to tie Democrats to the most hard-line calls to abolish policing:

Democrats from Biden on down will have to navigate the challenge of hearing and responding to their base, while avoiding alienating the more moderate, suburban white voters they need to win in 2020.

Biden supports police reform — but he has made clear he doesn’t support defunding or abolishing police departments.

“Vice President Biden does not believe that police should be defunded. He hears and shares the deep grief and frustration of those calling out for change, and is driven to ensure that justice is done and that we put a stop to this terrible pain,” Biden spokesman Andrew Bates told VICE News. “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.”

Democrats danced around the issue of defunding police departments at their press conference, with some saying they saw some merits in the idea even as they made clear that the bill didn’t address it.

Pelosi said Americans should “have those debates at the local level.”

“We could rebalance some of our funding to address more of these issues more directly,” Pelosi said. “But this isn’t about that.”

Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), the head of the Congressional Black Caucus, responded by pointing out the bill offered no new money for police, and included grants to communities “that begin to re-envision” what policing might look like in particular neighborhoods.

Police reform is already moving at the local level. Minneapolis’s city council took a dramatic step on Sunday, announcing they would disband the city’s police department. And the mayors of New York and Los Angeles have pledged to cut funds currently allotted to police departments and redirect them toward social programs aimed at helping nonwhite communities.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), one of the bill’s chief Senate sponsors, alluded to calls for cities and states to defund police programs and reapportion that money toward other programs that can help poorer and nonwhite communities.

“We have confused safe communities with hiring more cops on the street,” she said, pointing out that much reform would have to be undertaken at the local and state level. “Our bill addresses a very specific matter under a larger umbrella of issues that must be addressed.”

Harris also pointed out that “many in America right now already live in places with minimal police presence” — they’re just middle- and upper-class areas.

Cover: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and other Democratic lawmakers take a knee to observe a moment of silence on Capitol Hill for George Floyd and other victims of police brutality June 8, 2020, in Washington, DC. (Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)