WASHINGTON (AP) – Senate Republicans unveiled proposed changes to police procedures and accountability on Wednesday, countering the sweeping overhaul of Democrats with a more modest package, but underscoring how quickly the national race debate has been transformed five months before the election.
The White House signaled the support of President Donald Trump when Republicans embraced a new priority with the “Justice Act,” the most ambitious GOP police proposal in years in response to mass public protests against the deaths of George Floyd and other black Americans.
Senate leader Mitch McConnell promised swift action next week when the House will also vote on the democratic plan. That puts the two accounts on a collision course, but the momentum of suddenly changing American attitudes drives both. Half of adults now say that police brutality is a serious problem, according to an Associated Press-NORC poll.
“We hear you,” said South Carolina Senator Tim Scott during a news conference with GOP colleagues at the Capitol. The only black Republican senator, he had asked the leadership for a vote in the bill and was called upon to make it.
The outlook is extremely fluid, as both sides see the need to meet when graphic mobile videos and a public outcry over police killings sparked a global movement against racism and police brutality.
Home speaker Nancy Pelosi criticized the GOP package as “inadequate.” But she also said that the House Democrats “want to work twofold to pass legislation that will make meaningful changes to end the epidemic of racial injustice and police brutality in America.”
In the Senate, McConnell is pushing the Republican bill ahead of other priorities, and daring the less-than-satisfied Democrats to block the debate.
“We are serious about making a law,” said the GOP leader, whose home state of Kentucky has been troubled by the officer killing 26-year-old Breonna Taylor.
Both parties’ bills take a similar, but far from identical, approach to the core issues of police liability and procedures, as Congress delves into the issue of excessive use of force and treatment of colored people.
Central to both packages is a reinforced database of violent abuse incidents, so that officers’ files can be tracked even when they are transferred from one department to another. It is also a priority for Trump, who signed an executive order this week with a similar plan.
GOP law would raise law enforcement requirements to produce reports of the use of force under a new George Floyd and Walter Scott Notification Act, named after the Minnesota man whose death on May 25 caused protests over police brutality worldwide, and Scott , a South Carolina man shot by police after a traffic jam in 2015. Scott is not related to the Senator.
It would also enact the Breonna Taylor Notification Act to track “knock-off” orders, named after the Louisville woman who was killed when police used a search warrant to enter her home.
The democratic bill would go further by changing the federal statute regulating police misconduct into agents engaged in “reckless” actions.
Both bills would aim to change police procedures – abolishing chokeholds, which have already been banned by many departments, or requiring the use of body cameras – and strengthening training to prevent officers from using excessive force or racial profiling .
While the Republican package simply encourages many of the changes in police tactics, the democratic bill would often make the changes mandatory by either taking away funds if departments fail or by providing funds to make changes.
The GOP package also provides a protocol to intervene in response to Floyd’s death. Other officers assisted when Derek Chauvin pressed his knee to the man’s neck.
Scott said he had been stopped by police more than 18 times himself – including one this year for not reporting for a turn long enough – and urged his colleagues to understand that it is ‘not a binary choice’ between supporting law enforcement officers or colored people.
Since he first proposed changes five years ago, the mood in the country has changed.
“America is tired of this situation,” Scott said in an interview. “It is no longer African Americans, the black community, who are protesting. … The picture we see today is, America says enough is enough.”
But Democrats outright criticized Republican law, with Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer saying it “would not increase” and would be less accountable than the version of the House Democrats. Chairman Jerrold Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, called the bill an “appearance”. Representative Karen Bass, D-Calif., The President of the Congressional Black Caucus who led the democratic effort, said the GOP approach “certainly mimics parts of ours, but without teeth.”
A major point of disagreement is the ending of “qualified immunity” for officers, making it easier for those injured by the police to seek compensation in court cases. The democratic bill contains the provision, but the White House has said it’s a line too far Trump will not support.
When the Senate Republicans released their 106-page bill, the House Judiciary Committee considered the much broader democratic proposal for an expected House vote next week.
Despite the differences, the GOP effort tries to reach the Democrats through the aisle in different ways. It contains a long-sought law to make lynching a federal hate crime and another to start an investigation into the social status of black men and boys touted by Pelosi.
The Republican package – also known as the “Just and Unifying Solutions To Invigorate Communities Everywhere Act of 2020” – also includes a two-part Senate proposal to enact a law on the National Criminal Justice Commission and extends funding streams for several federal law enforcement programs, including the COPS program which is important to states.
The pack contains a mix of other proposals, including tapping into the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture to establish a law enforcement curriculum on ‘the history of racism in the United States’. Another closes a loophole to prevent federal law enforcement officials from engaging in sexual acts with those arrested or detained.
Expenditure on the bill would be considered in emergency situations, not to count on federal deficits.
The crowds in Washington have been overwhelming since Floyd’s death.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Trump is “fully behind” the GOP law.
At a Rose Garden event this week on his executive actions, Trump declared himself “committed to working with Congress on additional measures.”
Associated Press writers Kevin Freking, Jim Mustian, Colleen Long and Padmananda Rama and video journalist Hilary Powell contributed to this report.
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