Address of Senator Patrick Leahy on policing reform

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Address of Senator Patrick Leahy on policing reform

Wed, 06/24/2020 - 4:35pm -- tim

Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy On Policing Reform Legislation Before The Senate

Senate Floor

June 24, 2020

Since I last spoke on the Senate Floor in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the American people’s calls for justice and accountability have not diminished.  They have only grown stronger, and rightfully so.  And since then our nation has had to confront yet another needless killing of an African American man, when an Atlanta police officer shot Rayshard Brooks twice in the back while he was fleeing from officers.

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No one will dispute that police officers have incredibly challenging jobs. No one will dispute that they are faced with difficult split second decisions that impact life and death. But that difficulty does not excuse the fact that something is deeply wrong in our country.  It does not excuse the fact that people of color have disproportionately suffered from police misconduct. People of color disproportionately are profiled by police, are stopped by the police, are arrested by police, and are victims of excessive force at the hands of police.

Confronted with the killing of George Floyd, millions of Americans are demanding that we do better as a nation.  They are recognizing that longstanding societal prejudices and biases have created a law enforcement culture and broader criminal justice system that perpetuates these prejudices and biases.  And they are demanding that we roll up our sleeves and do the hard work of ensuring that those charged with preserving the rule of law are also subject to it.

For millions of Americans, the time to act is now.  But sadly the Senate is apparently not up to the task.  While on Thursday the House is expected to pass comprehensive legislation to reform policing with bipartisan support, the Senate is only advancing a patchwork of half-measures that would do little more than place a handful of Band-Aids on deep, generations-old wounds.

Now, I do not doubt that the legislation drafted by Senator Scott is a good faith attempt to find consensus within the Republican conference on how to reform policing.  But by any reasonable measure the bill fails to actually reform policing.  On many of the most pressing issues, such as addressing true racial inequalities, disparities, and discrimination, the Scott bill defers, either by doing nothing at all or leaving it to a future commission to study.

The Scott bill purports to create a new grant program to fund and mandate the use of body-worn cameras, which have been instrumental in holding both the police and suspects accountable.  But Congress already created that program five years ago, and the Appropriations Committee has been funding it every year since.

Where the Scott bill would create incentives to encourage police departments to change behaviors, the legislation introduced by Senators Booker and Harris would actually change those behaviors.  That includes by banning chokeholds and no-knock warrants.  And, unlike the Booker-Harris bill, the Scott bill would not address qualified immunity, which allows officers to evade accountability even when a court finds they violated someone’s constitutional rights.

The Scott bill does nothing to address racial profiling, and does nothing to ensure that deadly force only be used as a last resort.  It also does nothing to ensure there is federal oversight when a local law enforcement agency demonstrates a pattern of violating their citizens’ civil liberties.  It is well known that the Trump administration has effectively abandoned pattern or practice investigations and consent decrees, which are proven instruments for positive change within troubled departments.  That’s why the Booker-Harris bill strengthens these investigations at both the federal and state levels.

At every turn, where the Scott bill provides a talking point, the Booker-Harris bill provides real accountability and real transparency.  Sadly, and disturbingly, the fact that the Majority Leader will not allow the Senate to debate the Booker-Harris bill reveals that he is interested in neither.

For a moment last week it appeared as if some Republicans were serious about finding bipartisan compromise.  During a Judiciary Committee hearing on policing reform, Chairman Graham said he’d like the Committee to work together to find solutions — “to sit down” to see if we can “reconcile [the policing reform] packages and come up with something in common.”  Multiple Republicans on Committee even expressed an openness to re-evaluating qualified immunity to ensure there’s a sense of accountability within police departments. 

I agree.  While these are difficult issues, they are issues that the Judiciary Committee is capable of handling.  I know because we’ve done it before on tough issues.  Seven years ago a bipartisan group of senators put forward a thoughtful, bipartisan bill to reform our immigration system.  As Chairman, I held three hearings on the bill and then held five days of markups.  The Committee considered 212 amendments, 141 of which were adopted, including nearly 50 amendments offered by Republicans.  Our process was fair, thorough, and deliberate.  Sixty-eight senators supported the legislation on the Senate floor.

If we could replicate that process for policing reform today, I suspect even more senators would support it.  But Leader McConnell is skipping all of that.  He’s not allowing the Judiciary Committee to do its work.  He’s not attempting to build bipartisan compromise.  He’s instead forcing the Senate to either take up a wholly inadequate, partisan bill, or do nothing at all.

That’s not how the Senate gets things done.  If the Leader is serious about tackling racial injustice and policing reform, there is a blueprint to follow.  This is not it.  I urge the Majority Leader to reverse course.  If he is unwilling to bring meaningful legislation to the floor to address these issues now, he should allow the Judiciary Committee to put in the hard work necessary to build bipartisan consensus.

Instead, the Leader is insisting on a process that is designed to fail.  In doing so the Senate will fail George Floyd.  It will fail Breonna Taylor.  It will fail countless others who have been victims of brutality or discrimination by a flawed justice system.  And in doing so the Senate will fail the American people.  I sincerely hope that is not the path we take.  With so much at stake, I voted “no” on the motion to proceed to such a flawed bill.

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