Legislation being drafted by congressional Democrats seeks wide-ranging reforms to policing in America, including bans on chokeholds, limits to “qualified immunity” and other historic changes. Republicans have a choice: They can continue the do-nothing partisan obstructionism that has defined them lately on this and other issues, or they can get on the right side of history.
George Floyd’s death on May 25, after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes, plunged America into what has become an all-too-familiar pattern: A police killing of an unarmed black man prompts widespread outrage and demands for reform. Investigations are conducted, sometimes police policies are tweaked — and then it happens again.
The Justice in Policing Act of 2020, the legislation now being sought in the House, seeks to ban potentially lethal restraint practices such as chokeholds. It would also limit the lawsuit immunity protection that individual officers generally enjoy now when they’re accused of violating citizens’ constitutional rights. And it would ban “no-knock” warrants in drug cases, like the one in which a black female emergency room technician was killed by police in Louisville, Kentucky, in March.
The measure would create a national database of all use of force against civilians, broken down by race and other factors, while tightening the rules for using that force. It would also create a National Police Misconduct Registry to track complaints against individual officers, ensuring that information follows them when they move among police forces.
Floyd’s death was a virtual replay of the killing of Eric Garner by New York City police in 2014. In both cases, the men were confronted by multiple officers based on minor, nonviolent allegations. In both cases, officers used chokehold-type restraint maneuvers and didn’t let up even as the men gasped the identical phrase “I can’t breathe.” (Garner said it at least 11 times.) In both cases, the men slowly died as the officers refused to heed their pleas.
Some earlier police killings have prompted significant changes, such as the post-Ferguson reforms to prevent local police and courts from victimizing citizens with predatory cycles of fines and debt. But Floyd’s death has highlighted the need for more direct, street-level reforms aimed at policing itself.
Most large police forces today already prohibit officers from using chokeholds, but the ban isn’t universal, and it isn’t backed up by the force of federal law. That would change under the legislation now being proposed.
These and other commonsense reforms are certain to face intense pushback from police unions. Democrats will have to stand up to that — and to the likelihood that President Donald Trump will cynically trash any reform attempts as he panders to his base.
Both fights would be easier won if Republicans joined what many of them surely know in their hearts is a necessary fight for historic reform. The nation and the world are watching.
— St. Louis Post-Dispatch