WASHINGTON (AP) — Driven by a swift-moving national debate, Senate Republicans are on the brink of introducing an extensive package of policing changes with new restrictions on police chokeholds and other practices as Congress rushes to respond to mass demonstrations over the deaths of George Floyd and other black Americans.
It’s a sudden shift of GOP priorities with President Donald Trump signaling support. The White House is set to announce its own executive actions on law enforcement procedures in a matter of days, a crush of activity that shows how quickly police violence and racial prejudice are transforming national politics.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opened the chamber Monday declaring that Senate Republicans are developing “a serious proposal to reform law enforcement.”
While the emerging GOP package isn’t as extensive as the sweeping Democratic proposal, which is headed for a House vote next week, it is perhaps the most far-reaching proposed changes to policing procedures from the party long aligned with a “law and order” approach. Confronted with a groundswell of public unrest over police violence, in cities large and small nationwide, even the most conservative senators are joining the effort.
Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the sole African American Republican in the Senate, has been crafting the package set to roll out Wednesday. He said the chokehold, in particular, “is a policy whose time has come and gone.”
Over the weekend, the shooting death of Rayshard Brooks by a white officer in Atlanta led to a renewed public outcry, more street protests and the police chief’s swift resignation.
Democrats have said the GOP package doesn’t go far enough to match the outpouring of support for reforms. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer warned Republicans not to settle for minor changes.
“Now is the time to seek bold and broad-scale change, not change around the margins,” Schumer said Monday.
With the political debate fluid, it is unclear whether the parties will be able to find common ground. The proposals share many similar provisions but take different approaches to address some of the issues. Neither bill goes as far as some activists want in their push to “defund the police” by fully revamping departments.
The debate is changing almost daily, complicated by the fall election, with the Senate Republican majority at risk. McConnell, who is also up for reelection in November is backing the GOP effort after the death of Breonna Taylor when police entered her home in Lousiville. It’s a dynamic political environment in the aftermath of the killing of black Americans and the outpouring of protests and Black Lives Matter demonstrations that have overwhelmingly altered the national conversation.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to consider policing issues at a hearing on Tuesday.
Central to the Republican package would be the creation of a national database of police use-of-force incidents, a way to improve transparency so law enforcement officers cannot transfer from one department to another without public oversight of their record. The Democrats have a similar provision.
The GOP bill would encourage police body cameras and include a long-stalled effort to make lynching a federal hate crime.
Additionally, the Republican package is expected to restrict the use of chokeholds by withholding certain federal funds to jurisdictions that continue to allow the practice, according to a Senate Republican unauthorized to discuss the pending bill and granted anonymity.
While chokeholds have become a symbol of police brutality — and a ban is included in the Democrats’ bill — the maneuver is already banned in many departments. Police nationwide are far more likely to kill someone by shooting.
Yet, the Republican bill does not go as far as the Democratic proposal, particularly on the the issue of “qualified immunity,” which aims to enable those injured by law enforcement personnel to sue for damages. The White House has said that is a line too far. As an alternative, Scott has suggested a “decertification” process for officers involved in misconduct.
Still, Democrats signaled a willingness to look at the Republican approach for areas of common ground.
“Nothing is a non-starter,” said Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the House’s third-ranking Democrat, on a conference call with reporters.
Democrats face criticism over activists’ calls to defund the police, and party leaders in Congress have distanced themselves from that approach. The defund movement describes a range of options, from dismantling departments to shifting policing resources to other community services. The Democratic bill does not go that far, but would instead provide grant money to departments that want to consider new ways of policing.
“Nobody is going to defund the police,” Clyburn said Sunday. “We can restructure the police forces, restructure, reimagine policing. That is what we are going to do.”
Leading civil rights groups have backed the Democratic bill but it’s unclear if the Republican proposal will be extensive enough to gain broad support.
At the same time, the large police union, the influential Fraternal Order of Police, said in a statement it is working with Congress and the White House on the proposals, having provided “feedback” on the Democratic bill and “substantial input” on the emerging GOP package from Scott.
The House Judiciary Committee is set to consider the Democrats’ bill on Wednesday ahead of next week’s scheduled House vote.
Associated Press writers Colleen Long, Michael Balsamo and Padmananda Rama contributed to this report.