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Congress Stalls on Police Reform Despite Bipartisan Calls for Change

Rep. Karen Bass joined by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and other House Democrats spaced for social distancing, speaks during a news conference on the House East Front Steps on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 25, 2020.

A Congressional effort to pass police reform legislation in the wake of the death of George Floyd and other African Americans while in police custody has stalled, despite overwhelming bipartisan demand for change.

With the support of three Republicans, the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives passed a controversial police reform measure on Thursday. The bill failed, however, to gain traction in the Republican-led Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rejected Democratic Party demands to toughen a corresponding Senate measure before it is formally introduced for debate.

The stalled efforts reflect a deep partisan divide in Washington which has left the nation’s lawmakers unable to act on Americans’ demands for police reform and change on other issues such as immigration and gun control.

The U.S. public overwhelmingly supports some measure of police reform after the death of Floyd, who died after a white police officer pressed a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes as he pleaded he could not breathe.

An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found 29% of U.S. citizens believe a complete overhaul of the national criminal justice system is necessary. The poll said 40% of respondents feel the system must undergo significant change, while 25% say it needs only minor changes.

In the midwestern city of Minneapolis, Minnesota, where Floyd was died on March 25 and where unrest continues, efforts to achieve police reform have been more successful. The city council voted unanimously Friday to change the city charter, a step toward the potential dismantling of the police department.

Major bureaucratic obstacles would have to be overcome, though, before the city’s voters have the chance to decide the matter during November elections.

Since Floyd’s death, calls to defund police have spread across the U.S., with many activists advocating that some police funding be re-allocated to community-based social services programs.

Police departments in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit and Boston are among the local law enforcement agencies facing defunding calls from grassroots activists.

The American Civil Liberties Union accuses many of the agencies facing defunding calls of systemic racism, a charge that most of those agencies reject.

The issue has deep roots in the United States. The Kerner Commission report, ordered by then-President Lyndon Johnson after 150 U.S. cities erupted in violence in 1967 over racial injustice, concluded police brutality was a primary cause of the unrest.

Although police reform legislation in Congress has stalled, there are common elements in the House Democratic and Senate Republican bills that lawmakers could build upon if they address the issue again.

Both measures call for a national database of use-of-force incidents by law enforcement officers and limits on police chokeholds.