Senate GOP unveils police reform bill that seeks to discourage use of chokeholds

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Senate would take up the measure next week, setting up a showdown with Democrats.

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By Leigh Ann Caldwell

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans unveiled their version of police reform legislation Wednesday after weeks of nationwide protests over law enforcement treatment of Black Americans, setting up a battle with Democrats who are advancing a more sweeping version of reforms in the House.

The bill, put together by the Senate's lone Black Republican, Tim Scott of South Carolina, wouldn't ban chokeholds, but it would withhold federal funding from police departments that don't stop using the potentially deadly technique. In announcing the proposals, Scott defended the bill's approach, insisting that it would lead to a practical ban on the tactic. "If you think about the inability to have any grants if your department has chokeholds, that, frankly, is by default a ban on chokeholds," Scott said.

It would also require police departments to keep and update disciplinary information on officers and share it with other departments when officers try to get jobs, but it doesn't call for a national database to track complaints against individual officers. And it focuses on data collection about other contentious police practices, including "no-knock" warrants and use of force that results in serious injury or death.

The measure doesn't include a provision to eliminate qualified immunity, a legal mechanism that protects police officers from being personally liable for their actions while on the job. The idea of curbing that didn't gain widespread buy-in from other Republicans, including President Donald Trump, who has said he wouldn't support a police reform bill if it was included.

Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, a top member of GOP leadership, said it was still "a bridge too far" for many Republicans who worry that it would harm recruitment and retention of police officers. Qualified immunity is a central component of the Democrats' bill.

Another major difference between the Democrats' and Republicans' bill is the use of federal funds. Democrats wouldn't provide new federal funding to implement their reforms, while the Republican bill would provide funding through Justice Department grants for new training and de-escalation programs.

The GOP bill comes at a pivotal moment in the country on an issue that Republicans have been reluctant to address but have swiftly moved on after protests swept the nation following the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man, after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes.

"The George Floyd incident certainly accelerated this conversation," Scott said Wednesday.

Scott, who has publicly detailed instances when he has been racially profiled by the police both in his home state and inside the U.S. Capitol, led his colleagues in crafting the legislation and unveiled it at a Wednesday morning news conference where he was joined by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and half a dozen other Senate Republicans.

House and Senate Democrats, led by the Congressional Black Caucus and Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California, unveiled their legislation earlier this month, and the House Judiciary Committee is marking it up Wednesday. The House is expected to vote on it next week.

McConnell said he is going to move Scott's legislation to the floor next week, setting up a clash between the Democratic-led House and the Republican-led Senate on the legislation.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York said the GOP bill does "not meet the moment," but he signaled that he wouldn't block the Republican bill from being brought to the floor.

"This bill will need dramatic improvements," Schumer said. "This is not about the perfect being the enemy of the good. It's about replacing what's ineffective with the effective."

The president signed an executive order Tuesday that Democrats have called inadequate.

The death of Floyd has moved Republicans further along on the issue of police reform than they have been in the past, but they are resistant to creating any national standards of policing.

But the use of chokeholds, a broad term used to describe the blocking of air and blood, has come under specific scrutiny. Police departments have begun banning them in the wake of Floyd's death, but how often they are used is relatively unknown.

Under the GOP Senate bill, failure to comply with collecting data on no-knock warrants and body camera use would result in a reduction of federal funds. Police departments could apply for $1 million grants to implement the data collection.

The bill would also increase the punishment for officers filing false police reports, increase grants for the use of body cameras and make lynching a federal hate crime, a measure that has been blocked in the Senate.

It would also require police departments to keep and update disciplinary records of officers and to share the records with other local departments when officers move departments.

Harris, who helped author the Democrats' bill, said the GOP version "gives lip service to the problem."

"There's not teeth in it," Harris added. "Literally what he is proposing would not save a life."

While the bill is expected the gain the support of most Republicans, Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., said the measure doesn't go far enough.

"I've been disappointed that we haven't as a Republican Conference been more aggressive here," Braun said. He plans to introduce his own legislation, which would eliminate qualified immunity.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., also introduced a bill that would ban no-knock warrants, a measure that wasn't included in Scott's bill.

"We're still advocating that the bill needs to be fixed to make it better," Paul said.

Julie Tsirkin contributed.