Bill Highlight: Justice in Policing ActJune 16, 2020
By Zachary Tashman
On June 8, House and Senate Democrats introduced the Justice in Policing Act (H.R. 7120), a legislative package designed to improve police accountability, transparency, and training. This legislation comes on the heels of nearly three weeks of nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Though this bill does not address all of the institutional problems which have led to the disproportionate use of force against Black Americans by law enforcement, it is still a significant step in the right direction when it comes to curbing police misconduct. This article analyzes the individual components of this bill as well as additional measures the National Assembly would like incorporated to improve public safety for the communities we serve.
One of the greatest barriers to preventing police violence is the lack of consequences due to the enormous amount of legal latitude law enforcement officers have. For a police officer to be held criminally liable, a prosecutor has to prove a “willful” intent to do harm. Additionally, under the “qualified immunity” doctrine, police officers are often shielded from being held civilly liable for constitutional violations, unless a victim can identify a previous judicial rule that addressed the specific context and conduct of an offense. The Justice in Policing Act seeks to reduce these legal barriers to police accountability by changing the criminal liability statute to “knowingly or with reckless disregard” and making “acting in good faith” no longer an adequate defense for officers that violate an individual’s civil rights. Additionally, this bill would give the Department of Justice greater power to investigate and collect data on police misconduct as well as provide grants for state attorneys general to enhance their own oversight capabilities.
Even when police officers are held accountable for misconduct in their jurisdictions, often they are able to be rehired by a different department, putting new communities at risk. The second section of the Justice in Policing Act aims to remedy this deficiency in oversight by creating a national registry that would compile misconduct complaints, disciplinary/termination records, and police certifications for every federal, state, and local law enforcement officer. Additionally, police departments would be required to report to the Department of Justice all incidents that involve the “use of force”, along with demographic information about the civilian involved. This collection of data would make it easier to identify and track jurisdictions that are using excessive force in their conduct or show a pattern of discrimination.
Training & Practices
American police are significantly more likely to use deadly force against the citizens they are sworn to protect than any other developed nation. At the heart of this disparity is an institutional culture of violence that has been built up over the course of decades. In order to restore peaceful relations between police departments and the communities they serve, the Justice in Policing Act would make a number of changes to the way law enforcement officers are trained and the authority they are given. Specifically, this legislation would ban the practices of federal no-knock drug-related search warrants (which lead to the death of Breonna Taylor) and the application of pressure to the throat by police officers (which lead to the deaths of George Floyd and Eric Garner). The bill would also prohibit the use of racial, religious, and other discriminatory profiling. This is accompanied with federal funding for state and local governments to establish training programs that address racial bias, implicit bias, and procedural justice. Additionally, the bill would limit the transfer of military-grade equipment to state and local law enforcement as well as require the use of body cameras for all police officers.
The House of Representatives is moving with uncharacteristic speed to move their policing reform bill to the Senate. Two days after the Justice in Policing Act was introduced, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing, Policing Practices and Law Enforcement Accountability, which included testimony from George Floyd’s brother as well as experts on policing discrimination in the United States. The Judiciary Committee is expected to mark up the bill sometime the week of June 15, and Majority Leader Hoyer (D-MD) announced that it would be considered by the full House on the 25th.
Meanwhile Senate Majority McConnell (R-KY) has shown no sign of urgency to bring the House bill to a vote. More discouraging, the Trump Administration has shown a clear unwillingness towards reigning in qualified immunity, which is a key component of any serious policing reform. However, Senate Republicans are not sitting idle, having appointed Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) to spearhead the development of their own policing reform legislation. Additionally, the Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing entitled Police Use of Force and Community Relations on June 16, which should shed more light on what reforms Republicans find acceptable.
Human Service Component
Though the Justice in Policing Act addresses many of the topline and immediate issues associated with policing, more is needed to change the institutional underpinnings of our broken policing system. The fact is that over the past 40 years, policymakers have asked police departments to intervene in an ever-growing share of societal issues, such as homelessness and mental health. Most problems facing our communities do not require a police officer to be resolved, and often armed intervention only exacerbates deeply rooted inequities. That is why the National Assembly urges Congress to introduce additional legislation that redirects funding towards community-based solutions like childcare, after school programs, job training, restorative justice programs, and affordable housing, which are proven to reduce crime and poverty. The human service community is ready, willing, and able to take a greater share of responsibility in strengthening our communities. Give us the tools, and we will do the job.