Sen. Capito Urges Support For Senate Police Reform Bill
CHARLESTON — A group of Republican leaders in the U.S. Senate, including West Virginia’s Republican U.S. senator, have developed a new police reform bill after several deaths of black people at the hands of police, but some say the bill doesn’t go far enough.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va, joined Republican colleagues Wednesday morning at the U.S. Capitol to unveil the Just and Unifying Solutions to Invigorate Communities Everywhere (J.U.S.T.I.C.E.) Act of 2020.
The J.U.S.T.I.C.E. Act was developed by a Senate Republican task force led by Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the Republican caucus’ only black member. Scott, who has faced racial profiling himself by police pulling him over seven times, said the bill was about police reform, accountability and transparency.
“If you support America, then you support restoring the confidence that communities of color have in institutions of authority. If you support America, then you know that the overwhelming number of officers in this nation want to do their job and go home to their family,” Scott said. “We hear you. We’re listening to your concerns.”
Capito was selected for the task force by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Other members included Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., and Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla.
Speaking during Wednesday morning’s press conference, Capito said the main message of the J.U.S.T.I.C.E. Act is that lawmakers are working towards a solution on police brutality particularly in black communities.
“This is a pivotal moment in our country’s history,” Capito said. “If we as Congress – as Republicans and Democrats joining together – fail to act because of the crying voices that we hear every day about this, then we’re going to be deemed a failure in the eyes of so many not only in our communities of color, but our young people are losing faith and trust in law enforcement and our ability to react to situation where we can be helpful and we should be helpful.”
The bill has three primary components. It establishes the George Floyd and Walter Scott Notification Act, requiring police departments to keep detailed reports on use of force. No system is in place tracking instances when police fire their weapons at suspects, while only 40 percent of police departments report use of force to a database maintained by the FBI.
The Act was named for George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than 8 minutes, and for Walter Scott, who was shot by police in South Carolina during a traffic stop in 2015.
It creates the Breonna Taylor Notification Act, requiring law enforcement to keep detailed tracking of all no-knock raids on homes. Such searches are used when police suspect people inside the home might be armed or prepared to destroy evidence, such as illegal drugs, but outside of anecdotal incidents there is no data on how often these raids take place or the reasons for the raids.
The act was named for Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency room technician from Louisville, Ky. Taylor was killed after Louisville police officers executed a search warrant at her apartment. After using a battering ram to break down the door, police shot Taylor eight times after a confrontation. The police received a no-knock warrant believing Taylor’s apartment to be a location where a drug suspect was receiving packages.
The bill would use federal police funding as leverage to force police departments to end using choke holds to subdue suspects, such as what happened to Floyd in Minneapolis. The officer who used to choke hold is facing second-degree murder and manslaughter charges, while the officers who assisted in the arrest are facing aiding and abetting charges.
Speaking with reporters by conference call Wednesday afternoon, Capito said the J.U.S.T.I.C.E. Act dangles the carrot of federal funding in front of police departments to encourage them to end the policy of choke holds.
“In my opinion, choke holds should be banned,” Capito said. “We do it a bit differently. If you don’t have a policy in place to ban choke holds, you’re not going to have access to a lot of the grants and such that a lot of our police officers are getting.”
The J.U.S.T.I.C.E. Act also includes: increased funding for body-worn cameras for police officers and penalties for officers who don’t wear the body cameras; requirements for law enforcement agencies to maintain employment records to better track problematic candidates; make lynching a federal crime, and create a clearing house of information for police departments for training in de-escalation and duty to intervene when fellow officers cross the line.
“We are looking for a true solution here…a solution we can focus on,” Capito said. “I think it will go a long way towards improving law enforcement and I think that will help us improve the perceptions and the trust that communities of color are lacking in our law enforcement. We know that exists.”
But for some, the Republican-led bill doesn’t go far enough. The Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives was set to move on a police reform bill of its own Wednesday.
The bill, drafted by the Congressional Black Caucus with help from the House Judiciary Committee and a handful of Senate Democrats, includes a ban on choke holds, makes lynching a federal crime and imposes requirements for body cameras on all officers. It also would create a registry tracking police officer misconduct and limit the amount of military gear police department can receive through federal programs.
In the House bill but not in the J.U.S.T.I.C.E. Act is anything addressing qualified immunity for police officers and neither bill deals with reform of police unions. Unions can often shield police officers from being reprimanded and penalized for alleged misconduct. Qualified immunity prevents police officers from being sued during the course of performing their duties. The House bill would eliminate qualified immunity entirely.
An executive order signed by President Donald Trump this week uses federal money to incentivize police departments to change their training to emphasize de-escalation and to ban choke holds, utilize more social services in policing, and track credible abuses by officers. It also doesn’t include any language dealing with police unions and qualified immunity. Trump, McConnell, and Scott have all said that qualified immunity is off the table.
Capito said there needs to be a conversation about changing or reforming qualified immunity. With the U.S. Supreme Court choosing not to take up a case dealing with immunity, it puts the issue in Congress’ hands. But Capito said any changes to qualified immunity must be balanced.
“It provides certain protections to law enforcement and there is a certain concern that without these protections, we wouldn’t be able to recruit and ask offices to do the job of policing we ask of them to do,” Capito said. “That doesn’t mean there’s not room…for looking at qualified immunity and making some changes to it.”
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., released a statement through his spokesperson Wednesday afternoon, calling for Senate Republicans to allow bipartisan input for the J.U.S.T.I.C.E. Act. While he is pleased that the debate on police reform has started, Manchin spokesperson Sam Runyon said the Senator wants to see the bill go further.
“Senator Manchin is encouraged by the national debate on police reforms. He is hopeful that the Republican proposal is sincere and a genuine bipartisan process will move forward in the Senate with debate and amendments,” Runyon said. “As it is currently written it creates a series of commissions to study the problem but does not go far enough to address the issues raised by black Americans. He is committed to finding common ground on a pathway forward between this effort and the efforts of his democratic colleagues in the House and Senate.”