For years, countless Black Americans have lost their lives to heinous acts of violence at the hands of police officers. However, it was the recent killing of George Floyd that sparked an intense nationwide dialogue about race — and more specifically, measures that hold officers accountable for their actions.
On June 8, two weeks after Floyd's death, House Democrats unveiled a federal police reform bill. Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., co-sponsored the proposal, joining forces with the Congressional Black Caucus, the House Judiciary Committee and 200 other Democratic House and Senate leaders.
Nine days later, on June 17, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., introduced the Republicans' own police reform bill, which largely focuses on transparency and training.
Debates will undoubtedly commence over which party's legislation not only makes the most sense but, more importantly, which promises change across police departments nationwide. Blavity spoke with the lone Black Republican senator about his measure, the difference between the two bills and the challenges that lie ahead in passing this legislation.
Blavity: What makes the GOP-sponsored police reform bill different from what the Democrats introduced last week, and realistically speaking, how long do you think it might take for a proposal like this to pass?
Sen. Tim Scott: The main difference between the two proposals is that qualified immunity appears on the Democrat-sponsored bill, whereas my legislation focuses on more research surrounding mental health, homelessness and addiction. We also want to access data resulting in death by the use of the force as soon as possible. While the Justice Act favors the local approach, the House bill addresses matters at the state level. For example, local precincts might be ineligible for grants if officers use chokeholds.
I love the optimism of getting the Justice Act passed. A police reform bill has to be passed sooner rather than later. So, I anticipate floor debates to begin next week and then more robust debates on specific amendments to follow. Listen, I started this conversation five years ago following the death of Walter Scott in my own state and couldn’t get Democrats on board. Had it not been for the gentleman walking past who decided to film the incident, Officer Michael Slager would be a free man today. However, footage of the shooting contradicted his police report. Although both Democrats and Republicans have been slow to endorse body cameras, requiring officers to wear them could potentially save lives.
Blavity: Are Senate Republican members open to reforming qualified immunity. If so, is there a view of what a revised qualified immunity doctrine looks like?
TS: My proposal doesn’t address qualified immunity, but in the future, that is something we would be open to reforming. We have been asking the Democrats to embrace the policies outlined in the Justice Act for years, so I'd welcome the bipartisan effort on this initiative as well.
I’d also be open to de-certifying officers found guilty of misconduct. But, police unions would be opposed to that suggestion, and I’m not sure that would garner support from Democrats. My hope is that neither side becomes engaged in a political power struggle here and we instead focus on passing legislation we both agree with. However, making officers more responsible from a civil perspective doesn't get to the spot. Holding departments accountable for their actions is what my bill largely focuses on. So, I am absolutely open to having a conversation amongst senators moving forward.
Blavity: American voters might be skeptical of a bill introduced by Republican lawmakers regarding police reform. What will you do to ensure concerns felt on both sides of the political aisle are addressed as we continue discussing the topic of race months from now?
TS: One of the reasons I asked to lead this conversation is because I am the only Black Republican senator and I too have faced discrimination from law enforcement based on my race. As someone who has been in that position countless times, who better to lead this discussion.
The fact that George Floyd’s murder was captured on video was the fuel to the fire that resulted in the peaceful protests which prompted serious discussions about police reform is important. We’ll be discussing race forever, even when it’s not an election year. So, I hope we can forget about this being a clash between Republicans and Democrats and instead lawmakers can work together to reestablish confidence with Black Americans and other minorities of color.