Image for Competing Police Reforms Teed Up Federally and Locally

President Trump, congressional Democrats and Senate Republicans have or soon will put down separate, but very distinct markers for police reform in response to nationwide protests demanding significant reforms. 

Trump issued an executive order that relies on federal incentives to local police departments to promote higher standards, training in de-escalation techniques and independent credentialing of officers. Trump said higher standards would include restrictions, but not a ban on chokeholds.

Under his executive order, there also would be incentives to bring in experts in mental health, addiction and homelessness to act as co-responders in tense situations and to track officers with “credible abuses.” The US Justice Department would be assigned to maintain a federal database of police officers who have been terminated, decertified or convicted of on-duty offenses. 

Congressional Democrats unveiled the Justice in Policing Act with more than 200 cosponsors that would ban chokeholds, establish a national database tracking police misconduct and prohibit some no-knock warrants. Its most controversial provision would limit qualified immunity for police officers involved in civilian shootings.

The Senate Republican proposal centers on a decertification procedure to discourage, but not ban chokeholds and no-knock search warrants. The legislation, spearheaded by Senator Tim Scott, the only African-American member of the Senate GOP caucus, would require local police departments to report all officer-involved deaths to the FBI, promote training in de-escalation techniques and encourage increased use of body cameras and recruitment of more African-American police officers. It also would make lynching a federal hate crime.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have indicated they want to pass their respective police reform bills before the July 4 congressional recess. That presumably would lead to post-recess negotiations and passage of a compromise before the November election. Continuation of protests raise the stakes for Congress not passing something viewed as significant reform.

GOP Senator Mitt Romney complained that Democrats developed their proposal without reaching out to Republicans, preventing any bipartisan bill to emerge. Democratic Senator Cory Booker says there have been informal conversations across the political aisle, suggesting to him a compromise on significant reforms is doable.

There are common elements in the Trump, Democratic and Republican initiatives. Differences are a matter of degree, such as whether chokeholds are banned or just restricted. Democrats say Trump’s executive order and the Senate Republican proposal don’t go far enough. Scott says what Democrats propose cannot pass. One of the main stumbling blocks is Democratic insistence on ending qualified immunity for police officers, which has been baked into many local police union contracts and which Trump has called a non-starter in any legislation he would sign.

As federal officials spar over reform, many US cities find themselves in the middle of decision-making on police budgets and use-of-force policies as protests and demands to defund police departments continue. In the wake of the fatal police shooting of Rayshard Brooks last week, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms instituted executive orders requiring police officers to use de-escalation techniques and intervene when they see fellow officers using excessive force. 

Portland City Council approved a budget that cuts $16 million from policing, eliminates 107 positions and reallocates almost $5 million to fund Portland Street Response, which sends EMTs and social workers to police calls involving people with mental health or homelessness issues. Many cities are in conversation with school districts and transit agencies about continuing to post officers in schools and on public transportation.

States including Oregon are contemplating police accountability legislation. Oregon’s legislature goes into special session next week.