Lawmakers, advocates push for federal police reforms

By: and - June 13, 2020 7:24 am

Demonstrators march past the Lincoln Memorial during a protest against police brutality and racism takes place on June 6, 2020 in Washington, DC. This is the 12th day of protests with people descending on the city to peacefully demonstrate in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Updated, 2:07 p.m. 6/15/20

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death that has sparked protests across the country and the world, Michigan lawmakers and activists are pushing to change federal rules governing police conduct.

Floyd died after Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer, pinned him to the ground for nearly nine minutes. Louisville police shot Breonna Taylor, 26, eight times after they used a battering ram to break into her apartment a legal entry under the warrant a judge had approved.

Members from the congressional delegation are advocating for various changes to policing. Most of the Michigan Democrats are supporting a sweeping reform package led by the Congressional Black Caucus that was unveiled earlier this week. 

Rep. Brenda Lawrence at a rally for former Vice President Joe Biden in Detroit, March 9, 2020 | Andrew Roth

Six of the state’s congressional Democrats — U.S. Reps. Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield), Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit), Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn), Dan Kildee (D-Flint), Haley Stevens (D-Rochester Hills) and Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Twp.) and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) — are co-sponsoring the package backed by Democratic leaders in both chambers.* Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) and Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) have said they back police reforms, but haven’t taken a position on the bill itself.

Lawrence, second vice chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Wednesday that the bill is a collection of proposals that had previously been filed, but that the timing was now right to advance them because of “the outcry across the country” and the perception of widespread police misconduct. 

“I want to be very clear: This does not solve the problem,” Lawrence said of the police reform bill. “But it starts [to]. It’s a great start.”

The bill would ban federal funds for local departments that allow officers to use chokeholds, establish a national database of police misconduct and expand the definition of a criminal civil rights violation to apply in cases of reckless officer-involved deaths from the previous standard of “willfulness.”

Congress is considering the changes after the death of Floyd in Minneapolis last month sparked sustained protests and conversations about racial discrimination and police brutality. Black activists in Michigan and across the country have urged elected officials to capitalize on the moment.

“If we are to take the knee off the neck, choking the life out of black America, then we must act now,” the Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit NAACP, said in a news release. 

The Democrats’ legislation tracks with proposals from established African American groups.

N. Charles Anderson, the president and CEO of the Urban League of Detroit, said he supports policies like banning chokeholds, increasing police training on police bias and requiring body cameras, all of which are included in the bill.

Racial bias is a problem in policing, Anderson said, including in Michigan. Anderson said one example was on Tuesday in Warren when video showed a white officer pinned a black Amazon delivery driver to the ground during a confrontation stemming from the driver parking on the wrong side of the road. 

Common ground? 

No congressional Republicans have endorsed the Democrats’ bill, although some have offered support for certain aspects. U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said Democrats shut the GOP out of the process. 

House Republicans are working with U.S. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) on a separate bill, McCarthy said Thursday. McCarthy said he’d like to find common ground with the Democrats and noted he did support the ban on chokeholds.

It’s not clear where President Donald Trump stands. He said in an interview this week that he doesn’t “like chokeholds” and “generally speaking, they should be ended.” But he also contradicted that, saying when it’s “a real bad person … what are you gonna do now — let go?” Trump added that “the concept of chokehold sounds so innocent, so perfect.”

Still, aspects of the Democrats’ proposal have attracted support from across the Michigan delegation.

Tlaib and U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) have both voiced support for establishing a national database of police complaints. 

Upton spokesman Josh Paciorek wrote in an email the 17-term representative would have to see final language before deciding if he would support the measure. Upton does support certain provisions, however, Paciorek said, including the ban on chokeholds and establishment of the registry. 

Levin signed onto a bill that U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (L-Cascade Twp.) authored with U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) to abolish the “qualified immunity” doctrine that shields law enforcement officials from lawsuits. 

The Democrats’ bill includes a section on qualified immunity that would have the same practical effect as the Amash-Pressley bill.

‘Defund the police’ 

Some activists on the left have called for more sweeping changes, using the broad slogan “defund the police,” which is open to interpretations ranging from abolition of law enforcement offices to shifting resources to other services. 

Republicans, including some at a House Judiciary hearing Wednesday, have assailed the idea. 

“Officers like the ones involved in the death of George Floyd are not representative of the vast majority of America’s law enforcement officers,” U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) said at the hearing. “Most are faithful, self-sacrificing public servants. … We need to recognize and empower those law enforcement officers, which is precisely the opposite of the radical, dangerous proposals we’re seeing right now to defund them.” 

Asked about defunding police, Lawrence, a former mayor of Southfield, said she values a well-funded police force, but that funding services like mental health treatment would also improve public safety.

She also said racial disparities in other areas must be addressed.

The bill is targeted to recent police killings, sponsor Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) said at the Wednesday hearing. Separate provisions would ban federal funding for police departments that allow chokeholds or serve warrants without first knocking on a door. 

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Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler

Jacob covers federal policy as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues. His coverage areas include climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.

Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 22-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive.