US Democrats have proposed a sweeping overhaul of police oversight and procedures in an ambitious legislative response to the mass protests denouncing the deaths of black Americans at the hands of law enforcement.
Before unveiling the package, House and Senate Democrats held a moment of silence at the Capitol’s Emancipation Hall, reading the names of George Floyd and others killed during police interactions.
They knelt for eight minutes and 46 seconds — now a symbol of police brutality and violence, as the length of time prosecutors say Mr Floyd was pinned under a white police officer’s knee before he died.
“We cannot settle for anything less than transformative structural change,” said House speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The Justice in Policing Act would limit legal protections for police, create a national database of excessive-force incidents and ban police choke holds, among other changes, according to an early draft.
Representative Karen Bass, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, which is leading the effort, called it “bold” and “transformative”, adding: “The world is witnessing the birth of a new movement in this country.”
Tens of thousands of demonstrators nationwide have been protesting in the streets since Mr Floyd was killed on May 25.
“A profession where you have the power to kill should be a profession where you have highly trained officers that are accountable to the public,” Ms Bass said.
The package confronts several aspects of law enforcement accountability and practices that have come under criticism, especially as more police violence is captured on video and shared around the world.
The proposed legislation would:
– Revise the federal criminal police misconduct statute to make it easier to prosecute officers involved in misconduct “knowingly or with reckless disregard”;
– Change “qualified immunity” protections for police “to enable individuals to recover damages when law enforcement officers violate their constitutional rights”;
– Seek to provide greater oversight and transparency of police behaviour including by granting subpoena power to the Justice Department to conduct “pattern and practice” investigations of potential misconduct and help states conduct independent investigations;
– Ban racial profiling and boost requirements for police body cameras;
– Create a National Police Misconduct Registry to try to prevent officers from transferring from one department to another with past misconduct undetected.
A long-sought federal anti-lynching bill stalled in Congress is included in the package.
However, it stops short of calls by activists to “defund the police”, a push to dismantle or reduce financial resources to police departments that has struck new intensity in the protests since Mr Floyd’s death.
House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler will convene a hearing on the legislation on Wednesday.
It is unclear if law enforcement and the powerful police unions will back any of the proposed changes or if congressional Republicans will join the effort.