Can Democrats and Republicans in Washington compromise to pass police reform? 

Monitor staff
Published: 8/2/2020 5:16:52 PM

Congress has responded to the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in May with two bills amid a national outcry for reform to combat police brutality and targeted racism.

The Justice Act, spearheaded by Tim Scott of South Carolina, the Senate’s only Black Republican, offers incentives to police departments to ban chokeholds, allocates funds for body cameras, enforces stricter disclosure requirements about use of force and no-knock warrants, and makes lynching a federal hate crime.

New Hampshire’s two senators, Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, voted to defeat the legislation last month and now bi-partisan compromise on any reform looks unlikely before the November election.

Senate Democrats argued that the proposed reforms in the Justice Act were not expansive enough.

Democrats took a more sweeping approach with the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would curb qualified immunity and create a federal ban on chokeholds and no-knock warrants. That bill passed in the House on June 25, but is not expected to go far in the Senate.

The question remains whether Democrats and Republicans can compromise to put a police reform bill into law. As political energy in Washington has already begun to slip away from law enforcement and back to the pandemic, the Monitor spoke with the Granite State’s congressional delegation about how they are working to end police brutality and racial bias, and what they believe needs to be included in an effective reform bill.

Each said they were hopeful for reform, but offered few specifics on areas where they were willing to compromise with Republicans to get legislation passed.

Hassan and Shaheen and Reps. Annie Kuster and Chris Pappas all agreed that a ban on chokeholds was a necessary component of an effective police reform bill. This was part of Scott’s Republican bill, but the New Hampshire delegation maintained that a more expansive bill would be necessary to address police reform at its core.

Hassan said the time to act is now, but was noncommittal on specifics.

“I have concerns that Senator Scott’s bill did not address the issue at the level we need to address it at,” Hassan said. “It’s important that Republicans sit down with Democrats to write and pass comprehensive legislation. The conversations are happening and I’m glad they’re happening, but what I really think we need to do is make sure that we’re taking meaningful action at this unprecedented time.”

The delegation generally expressed a more favorable view towards the George Floyd bill – which was spearheaded by Democratic Sens. Corey Booker and Kamala Harris and the Congressional Black Caucus – but some of the bill’s more controversial provisions, primarily ending qualified immunity, sparked concern for Shaheen and Hassan. The George Floyd bill would no longer allow police officers accused of misconduct or violence to use the defense that they were “acting in good faith” or were under the impression at the time of the incident that their conduct was lawful.

Hassan said she believed that “there might be some unintended consequences to abolishing qualified immunity entirely,” and that this was one of the issues she was “continuing to evaluate and get feedback on.”

Shaheen said that she does not support the way that qualified immunity was defined in Booker and Harris’ bill.

“I think it’s important to hold police officers accountable for actions that violate citizens’ constitutional rights,” Shaheen said. “But I would hope that in addressing that issue, we would do it in a way that reaches a compromise between people who want to totally redefine it, and those who don’t want to change it at all. It seems to me that there’s a place to discuss that issue, and so far we haven’t seen an effort to do that.”

Rep. Kuster, on the other hand, said that it was “too bad” that curbing qualified immunity is such a contested issue – one that many Republicans in Congress and a few Democrats are unwilling to take up.

“I think, really, the police union has made it more controversial,” she said.

Kuster said she believes that the public agrees with her position that “any person should want to be held to a high standard of conduct.”

“What’s obvious to me is that there are some parts of the country where there is obvious racial bias within police departments, and people are committing reckless misconduct, including murder,” Kuster said. “I think most police would want to hold their profession to a higher standard. So I honestly don’t believe it needs to be controversial, they should want to hold bad officers accountable in order to maintain the public trust.”

At many of the recent protests for Black Lives Matter, activists have made calls to defund the police. Pappas, Hassan and Shaheen do not support redirecting money spent on law enforcement toward other community resources that deal with mental health and substance abuse crises. Kuster, on the other hand, was more open to what she called “a reevaluation of our municipal budget.”

Shaheen said that police are often “the call of last resort” for incidents surrounding domestic violence, mental health issues, and drug addiction, and that “we need more help in our communities to address those kinds of challenges.”

“I think when people call for defunding the police, it’s seen as we need to get rid of police departments, and I certainly don’t support that,” Shaheen said.

She suggested employing a model in which police are accompanied by mental health professionals on calls that center around mental health crises.

Pappas said that members of law enforcement have told him that the best thing he can do to support them is to strengthen the social services that take care of individuals who are addicted or have mental health issues so that they don’t get to a “crisis point” where law enforcement is called.

Hassan said that over time, police have been called to take on more responsibilities that don’t fall under the umbrella of traditional law enforcement. She suggested expanding drug courts and creating mental health crisis units to respond to those calls so that police don’t have to, but she firmly asserted that she does not support defunding the police.

Kuster decried the trend of militarizing police departments, which she said exemplifies a “warrior” approach to policing in which “every interaction is anticipating conflict.” Instead, Kuster hopes that police can embrace a “guardian mentality” as the protectors of public safety.

As the George Floyd bill enters a Republican-controlled Senate, the Granite State’s congressional delegation expressed differing levels of optimism about the possibility of getting an effective police reform bill passed.

Shaheen said she is “not optimistic” that she’ll see the kind of bipartisan effort it will take to pass a bill on police reform by the November elections, especially “under the current leadership.”

Pappas said he hopes that a “good faith compromise” will develop in the Senate, but said he would be willing to start addressing the issue with small steps.

“I’m all for taking a step or two if we can, and then revisiting the issue next term,” he said. “We’ve got to continue to push ourselves to have uncomfortable conversations about race and inequality in this country. For too long, it’s been swept under the rug.”

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