On June 25, one month after a now former Minneapolis police officer killed an unarmed Black man named George Floyd, the House of Representatives passed a police reform bill called the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. It was approved by a vote of 236 to 181.
One of the legislators who introduced the measure was Congressional Black Caucus Chair Karen Bass.
“We do not consider this to be a bill that is anti-police. We would like to uplift the profession,” Congresswoman Bass said. “One of the issues that we've had with policing around the country is you might be able to have a standard in one area and not in another. A chokehold might be OK in one city and not in another. And so lifting the profession and saying that there needs to be standards.”
Bass spoke with members of the Fraternal Order of Police and the National Association of Police Chiefs, all of whom said they’ve been trying to implement a variety of ethical standards for a long time.
“They’ve been fighting for it police department by police department. We have 18,000 police departments in the United States, so what we're trying to do is to do it nationally, thereby it makes it a lot easier on them,” Congresswoman Bass said.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act establishes a national standard for the operation of police departments. The bill includes the Peace Act, which states that officers have a duty to intervene.
“If you see another officer doing something wrong, brutalizing somebody, or corrupt, it's your duty to say something,” Congresswoman Bass said. “We're hoping that this gets at police culture where the opposite is what is true: You keep your mouth closed, you hide it, you are fearful.”
There will now be a national registry of police officers where documents of misconduct can be found.
“Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice would have turned 18 [on June 25] when we voted on the bill, and he was killed by an officer who had been fired from another department,” Congresswoman Bass said. “And so if the police chief knew that this officer was unstable and had a propensity for violence, I'm sure he wouldn't have hired him. But that officer lied and apparently that's something that's very common. Officers in especially smaller areas go from department to department. That should never happen.”
Bass would also like to make it easier to bring legal proceedings against offending police officers.
“One of the problems is that it's very difficult to prosecute an officer, which is why you see person after person being killed on video, being shot as they're running away or choked to death, and nothing happens,” she said. “If it's willful intent, you're talking about what was in the officer’s mind when it happened. If it's reckless, it doesn't matter what was in the officer’s mind. If you're reckless, you’re reckless. And so that is very important.”
Officers will be trained in de-escalation tactics.
“This is really important. If you just think of what happens, a lot is that you might have an officer that's encountering somebody who's mentally ill, who's having an episode, and the officer doesn't know how to deal with it and that person winds up dying,” Congresswoman Bass said. “Hopefully training and de-escalation tactics can be helpful.”
George Floyd’s 6-year-old daughter Gianna requested that the Justice in Policing Act be named after her father so that people would remember him.
“I think that the world watching [and] that is what galvanized the protests, and I really believe that it has led to a seismic change in people’s thinking,” Congresswoman Bass said. “Before, every time somebody saw a video, they always questioned it: What happened before the camera went on, and what did the person do wrong? I mean we do have this system here called ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ and you arrest somebody and put them on trial. Even if someone has committed a crime, you don’t just go execute them.”
In the past, Bass said her Republican colleagues also questioned videos of people being killed by police officers. Seeing the video of George Floyd was different this time.
“That's part of the seismic change to me,” she said. “They all thought that what happened to George Floyd was horrific.”
While Republican leaders did have some issues with the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, Congresswoman Bass said it “wasn’t a flat-out rejection.”
“We got three Republican votes in the end. That is a really big deal because usually when Trump tweets, they're all lockstep together,” she said. “So they came up to me during the debate and after the debate saying, ‘I know this bill is passed, but we’ve got to work on this because there's a lot in this bill we agree with but we didn't like this, we didn’t like that.’ So I think there's room to negotiate, but I think it was a huge change. Any other time they would have been debating the nuances of the videotape.”
While the bill takes major steps toward changing policing in America, Congresswoman Bass said “it doesn’t go far enough.”
Before this period of racial unrest, Congresswoman Bass was fully focused on the novel coronavirus and the disproportionate impact it is having on people of color. The killing of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests have brought national attention to the issue of inequality in America.
“People are beginning to talk about the inequities and understand that there's a lot broken in our systems. I think to the people that are calling for defunding the police, I heard this today on a Zoom call I was on, that it's about refunding the communities,” she said.
Thirty years ago, Congresswoman Bass founded Community Coalition because she saw her community being defunded.
“We were watching the safety net being shredded, we were watching social services being cut, and we were watching police budgets increase,” she said. “And what we have done over the last 30 or 40 years in our society is that we have ripped apart basic supports for communities and then when problems develop, we turn them over to the police.”
Police officers aren’t trained to deal with situations related to homeless and mental health crises.
“I've never met a police officer that didn't say, ‘I'm a police officer. I'm not a social worker. Why am I dealing with marital problems? Why am I dealing with homelessness? Why am I dealing with drug addiction? You guys need to deal with this.’ So to me, it is about refunding our communities so that we can have the type of social services that are needed, and then we don't call the police to clean up the problems that our lack of funding has contributed to,” Congresswoman Bass said.
Reinvesting in communities is at the heart of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.
“We have criminalized health problems, and so I support the idea of changing it around and turning it on its head in terms of how we invest in communities,” Congresswoman Bass said. “So part of the bill now provides grants to community-based organizations, so people can re-envision public safety.”
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