Ga. reps helped lay groundwork for Democrats’ sweeping policing bill

Some of the initiatives found in congressional Democrats’ new policing bill are proposals U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson authored years ago.

The recent willingness by Democrats, potentially some Republicans and members of the public to embrace sweeping changes in how law enforcement officers do their jobs came, in part, because of the graphic video of George Floyd’s final moments. Protests nationwide focused on the death of Floyd and other African Americans who were killed by police, and they acted as the catalyst behind Monday’s unveiling of the sweeping proposal.

The bill would create new accountability measures and federal oversight of law enforcement while also tying funding to policy changes.

“Sometimes, reality has to match aspiration,” Johnson, a Lithonia Democrat, said Monday morning after the bill was released.

He and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, are among the lawmakers whose work over the years is credited with building the foundation upon which the Justice in Policing Act was built. One component of the bill would limit the practice of donating federally owned military-grade equipment to local police departments; Johnson first proposed this in 2013.

Back then, he was responding to concerns about how law enforcement agencies treated protesters in Ferguson, Mo., after the police killing of Michael Brown. Some of those units deployed armored vehicles staffed by officers in military gear to quell the crowds with tear gas; critics called the tactics unnecessarily violent.

“It has taken this long for the reality of what happened to Michael Brown and other black folks in America to sink in, and now with the killing of George Floyd it has finally hit home, the fact that the militarization of our police forces contributes to the unlawful killing of black people in America by police officers,” Johnson said.

The bill includes provisions that would:

  • Make it easier to bring criminal charges again law enforcement officers accused of misconduct or abuses and also making it easier for their victims to file lawsuits to recover damages.
  • Give states and the U.S. Department of Justice additional resources to investigate accusations of discriminatory or unconstitutional policing practices.
  • Create the National Police Misconduct Registry to prevent officers accused of wrongdoing from getting jobs at other agencies.
  • Establish a national use-of-force database.
  • Ban no-knock warrants in drug cases on the federal level.
  • Forbid the use of chokeholds and neck holds like the one that killed Floyd for any agencies that received federal funding.
  • Require state and local agencies that receive federal funding to implement body and dashboard cameras.

Johnson and Lewis are among the proposal’s roughly 200 co-sponsors, and they are joined by the three other Democratic members of Georgia’s delegation: U.S. Reps. Sanford Bishop of Albany, Lucy McBath of Marietta and David Scott of Atlanta.

So far, no Republicans have lent their support to the proposal.

However, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said last week that he believes there is room for bipartisan agreement on topics such as training for law enforcement, better oversight of departments and making it easier to remove officers' accused of misconduct from their jobs, according to a CQ Roll Call report. That was before Democrats released their proposal.

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, is a member of the House Judiciary Committee that could have a hearing on the bill as soon as next week. He said Democrats should have worked with Republican counterparts to come up with a draft that had bipartisan support that addressed “excessive police force and the violent tactics of extremist groups like antifa.”

“But unfortunately, rather than working across the aisle to draft bipartisan legislation, Democrats — yet again — chose to draft a bill behind closed doors with no Republican input,” Collins said. “I’m disappointed that my colleagues chose to go this route.”

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said during her daily briefing that certain parts of the Democrats' proposal, particularly the elimination of qualified immunity that shields officers from lawsuits, are a "nonstarter" with President Donald Trump's administration. She noted that Attorney General William Barr had already weighed in on that issue over the weekend.

“He said that we don’t not need to reduce immunity to go after the bad cop because that would result, certainly, in police pulling back, which is not advisable,” McEnany said.

House Democrats, who are in the majority, can pass a bill in that chamber without the help of Republicans. But the GOP holds the majority in the U.S. Senate where the proposal could stall without support from at least a few Republicans.

Georgia U.S. Sen. David Perdue released a statement that said he was open to creating new accountability for law enforcement, although he did not say whether there were provisions in the Democrats’ proposal he would get behind.

“Police officers who commit crimes like the murder of George Floyd should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” he said. “In the U.S. Senate, I’m committed to working toward meaningful solutions to root out racism in our society and ensure justice is applied equally to everyone.”

Perdue also mentioned that he does not support reducing funding for law enforcement agencies, an issue that has come up in cities like Washington and Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, but is not part of the bill proposed by Democrats.

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s office said she is still reviewing the bill and wants to support initiatives that prevent deaths such as Floyd’s without undermining the law enforcement community as a whole.

In recent days, the senator from Georgia has also spoken out against “defund the police” conversations.

U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt, a Democrat from Delaware, mentioned Lewis when she encouraged her Democratic colleagues to focus on changing policing policy and not concern themselves with the funding conversations happening at the local level.

“We’re trying to rebuild the foundation, that’s all,” Blunt said. “So keep our eyes on the prize.”

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