Voters sign

Voters will learn whether their leaders are serious about holding police officers accountable for excessive violence. — AP Photo/Brynn Anderson

Democrat and Republican leaders are proposing police reform legislation in the aftermath of nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd and other killings of unarmed African Americans by police.

Top Democrats vow that the House will pass the proposed Justice in Policing Act, which would, among other key provisions: Ban choke holds and no-knock warrants by federal law enforcement and make federal funding of local police agencies depend upon adoption of similar rules; limit the transfer of military-grade equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies; revise the standard justification on use of deadly force from whether it was “reasonable” to whether it was “necessary”; and limit qualified immunity for police officers.

While wearing Kente cloth around their necks, Democrats in Congress kneeled for eight minutes and 46 seconds before unveiling the measure. The legislation would be a significant step toward police reform.

However, Democrats know full well that the measure will not be passed by the Republican-controlled Senate or signed by President Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, the White House is consulting with Republicans in Congress to develop a GOP plan on policing.

However, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany reiterated that Trump considers ending qualified immunity for police officers “a non-starter.”

McEnany said that qualified immunity — which shields cops from being sued in court for violating a civilian’s constitutional rights, unless their actions violated “clearly established federal law” — was not something the president would consider.

Sen. Tim Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate, who has been tasked with leading the GOP effort to pass a police-reform bill before July 4, has also ruled out reforming qualified immunity.

There can’t be a serious proposal for police reform that does not call for ending qualified immunity, while also amending the standard of prosecution for police misconduct from “willfulness” to “recklessness.”

So we have Democrats proposing legislation that they know will not pass in the Republican-controlled Senate and Republicans considering proposals that will not limit qualified immunity which would hold police officers accountable for brutality and other misconduct.

This raises the question of whether Democratic or Republican leaders are serious about police reform or are simply buying time until other issues dominate the headlines.

Voters will know if these leaders are serious if they pass legislation in Congress that holds police officers accountable for excessive violence through effective mechanisms to discipline and dismiss.

Both parties have had decades to take action on police brutality, a longstanding problem in America. In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson constituted the Kerner Commission to identify the genesis of the violent unrest in American cities. The Kerner Commission’s landmark 1968 study found that poverty, inequality and systemic racism in policing were the root causes of the unrest.

The use of excessive force by police has also made headlines in more recent years with the killing of Eric Garner in New York in 2014, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, Philando Castile in Minnesota in 2016 and many other killings by police of unarmed Black Americans. The police are not prosecuted in the vast majority of cases and are rarely convicted.

Fortunately, some change is beginning to happen on the federal level. Congressman Justin Amash of Michigan, a white male former Republican who is now a member of the Libertarian Party, and Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, a Black female progressive Democrat from Massachusetts, have jointly introduced a bill that would end the principle of qualified immunity, in which police officers and other public officials are shielded from lawsuits in the course of doing their jobs.

The legislation, called the Ending Qualified Immunity Act, would explicitly state that police officers who engage in civil rights violations are not exempt from liability. Voters should urge their congressman to pass this bill.

Some change is also beginning to happen on the state and local levels.

Sens. Art Haywood (D-4) and Camera Bartolotta (R-46), co-chairs of the State Senate Criminal Justice Reform Caucus, last week issued a statement regarding their intentions to collaborate on bipartisan public safety reforms.

Both Haywood and Bartolotta said they believe the focus should not only be addressing over-incarceration, successful rehabilitation, and re-entry efforts, but also protecting civil rights and improving the legal system.

In Minneapolis, Police Chief Medaria Arradondo announced the department will withdraw from police union contract negotiations until there are reforms in the contract. He said it’s debilitating for a chief when an officer does something that calls for termination but the union works to keep that person on the job.

Here in Philadelphia, Mayor Jim Kenney and Philadelphia City Council put forward a package of reforms that included banning neck restraints and expanding transparency around police union negotiations.

Voters who seek change in policing must continue to press politicians and demand reform on the municipal, state and national levels.

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