WASHINGTON - U.S. policing reforms are taking center stage Wednesday in Congress, as Senate Republicans offer their legislation promoting police accountability for their actions on the streets of America, while House Democrats moved to advance their more far-reaching measure to curb abusive police conduct.
Whether the divided lawmakers can reach common ground less than five months before the presidential and congressional elections in November is uncertain. But there is a certain urgency to the debate uncommon to Washington politics in the immediate aftermath of controversial police actions in which black men have again died while in the custody of police officers.
The debate is occurring after nationwide, coast-to-coast protests against the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, three weeks ago in Minneapolis after a white police officer held him face down on a city street for nearly nine minutes by pressing his knee on his neck. Then, last Friday, a white Atlanta police officer shot a black man, Rayshard Brooks, to death in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant.
Senate Republicans, led by Tim Scott, the lone black Republican senator, are calling for new reporting requirements on the use of deadly force by police across the country and to limit federal funding for state and local departments that fail to comply.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order Tuesday to create a database of police misconduct. He promised a "big moment" if lawmakers could act to pass legislation and said he was "committed to working with Congress on additional measures."
But he also declared his support for police, saying, “Americans want law and order.”
Scott said at a Wednesday news conference, “Every level of government wants change. The question is, can we get bipartisan support?”
He said Republicans and Democrats have “common ground” on collecting data about police actions and curbing the police use of neck chokeholds in the apprehension of criminal suspects, but should not get bogged down in a debate over whether, as some Democratic lawmakers contend, there is systemic racism in U.S. police agencies.
Republican Sen. Shelly Moore Capito of West Virginia said, “This is a pivotal moment in America. Racial discrimination has no place in our country. Many of us are overwhelmed by what we saw in Minneapolis with George Floyd.”
The Republican legislation would require state and local governments to report to the U.S, Justice Department on the use of no-knock-warrants in police raids to capture criminal suspects. It also would limit eligibility for federal funding if police agencies do not have policies prohibiting the use of chokeholds "except when deadly force is authorized."
Like Democrats, the Republicans want to create a Commission on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys, an effort aimed at studying some of the root causes of crimes committed in minority communities. Such a bipartisan effort would provide a report on the circumstances most affecting the lives of African American men, such as education, health care and the criminal justice system.
The Republican-controlled Senate could vote on its measure as soon as next week.
WATCH: Competing Police Reform Proposals Set for Votes Next Week
What Democrats are proposing
Meanwhile, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives is advancing its more far-reaching measure that would ban the use of chokeholds, limit qualified immunity for police officers to make it easier for people who feel aggrieved by police actions to sue them for damages and to end no-knock warrants in federal drug cases.
At a Senate hearing Tuesday, one key Republican, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, seemed open to the idea of curbing police immunity protecting them from lawsuits brought by people who contend their civil rights have been abused by police.
“We don’t want to deter people from going into law enforcement. But we also want to have a sense of accountability,” Graham said. “And to the extent that qualified immunity fosters a sense of ‘It’s really not my problem,’ let’s take a look at it.”
“Qualified immunity is an intriguing idea to me,” he said. “I don’t want the cop to lose their house, but I do want people to think twice if they’ve got a police force about how to organize it and how to train. ‘Cause that’s when change will happen, when people feel the sting of bad policies.”
Trump, however, has said he won’t consider any changes to legal protections for officers from lawsuits.