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House passes wide-ranging Democratic police reform bill

Democrats push police reform bill

The House approved a police reform bill proposed by Democrats on Thursday night, after Senate Democrats blocked a more modest proposal from moving forward in the Senate a day earlier. The bill passed with a vote of 236 to 181, with three Republicans — Representatives Brian Fitzpatrick, Will Hurd and Fred Upton — joining the Democrats to vote in favor. 

"This year in Congress, the only way we can ensure that a policing reform bill is signed into law is by coming to the table with all parties, in good faith, to finally end this injustice," Fitzpatrick, a representative from Pennsylvania, said in a statement. The bill will now go to the Senate, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said it will not pass the Republican-held chamber. 

The bill, titled the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, comes amid continuing protests against police brutality and racial violence that have rocked cities across the country. Floyd, a black man, was killed in May by a Minneapolis police officer who pinned his knee to his neck for nearly nine minutes.

"Today we have the opportunity and the obligation to ensure that his death and the death of so many others is not in vain," Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a press conference on the steps of the Capitol Thursday morning. Pelosi noted that Thursday marks exactly one month since Floyd was killed. 

The legislation, spearheaded by Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Karen Bass, would ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants in drug cases and reform qualified immunity, making it easier to pursue claims against police officers in civil court. 

"A profession where you have the power to kill should be a profession where you have highly trained officers who are accountable to the public," Bass said at the press conference.

Other provisions in the House bill include incentivizing state attorneys general to investigate local police departments, and providing grants for states to create procedures for investigating police-involved deaths. The legislation attempts to improve transparency by creating a National Police Misconduct Registry, and mandate state and local law enforcement turn over data on use of force broken out by race, gender, disability, religion and age.

The bill also aims to address cultural biases in police stations by mandating racial bias training. It would also change the standard for evaluating whether use of force was justified. Currently, officers only need to prove that use of force was "reasonable" — but the bill would change the standard so that officers need to prove that use of force is "necessary." The measure would require federal law enforcement officers wear body cameras, and limit transfer of military-grade equipment to state and local law enforcement.

Democrats in the Senate blocked the GOP bill because they believed the measure, proposed by Senator Tim Scott, the lone black Republican in the Senate, did not go far enough to address police brutality. Republicans condemned Senate Democrats for being unwilling to even debate the bill on the Senate floor, although Democrats argued that it should have been discussed in committee before being brought to a vote by the full Senate.

The Senate bill would require increased reporting of use of force and no-knock warrants, provide grants for law enforcement to be equipped with body cameras and require departments to maintain and share officer disciplinary records. It also would establish several commissions, including one studying the conditions affecting black men and boys and one reviewing best practices for police departments.

In a speech on the Senate floor after the vote failed on Wednesday, Scott said he offered Democrats the opportunity to vote on up to 20 amendments on his bill, but they declined.

"The actual problem is not what is being offered, it is who is offering it," he said. However, amendments would also require 60 votes to be added to the bill, and Democrats would have been unlikely to garner Republican support for their amendments.

There is some overlap between the Republican and Democratic bills. The House measure would also require that federal law enforcement officers wear body cameras. Both bills include a section making lynching a hate crime. Republican Senator Mike Braun has introduced his own bill to reform qualified immunity.

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