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Senate GOP proposes policing changes in 'Justice Act'

By LISA MASCARO and JIM MUSTIAN Associated Press • Jun 17, 2020 at 1:05 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Republicans unveiled proposed changes to police procedures and accountability Wednesday, countering Democratic policing legislation with a bill that stays clear of federal mandates.

The “Justice Act” is the most ambitious GOP policing proposal in years, a direct response to the massive public protests over the death of George Floyd and other black Americans. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he believes America is not a racist country but “the stain is not totally gone” from slavery and the Civil War.

He said the chamber will move swiftly to floor debate next week.

The GOP proposal includes an enhanced use-of-force database, restrictions on chokeholds and new commissions to study law enforcement and race. The Senate’s lone black Republican, Tim Scott of South Carolina, led a task force of GOP senators compiling the package.

Scott spoke of his own experiences being stopped by police — including once this year — and urged colleagues to understand it’s “not a binary choice” between supporting law enforcement or people of color.

“We hear you,” Scott said, addressing himself to the families of those Americans killed by police. “I think this package speaks very clearly to the young person and his concern when he stopped by law enforcement officers.”

McConnell said Republicans are “serious about making a law” and challenged Democrats to support it. But Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer immediately criticized the legislation, saying it was clear that the GOP bill “does not rise to the moment” and would provide less accountability than House Democrats’ version.

The 106-page bill is not as sweeping as that Democratic proposal, which the House Judiciary Committee is considering on Wednesday before an expected House vote next week. But it shows how swiftly the national debate has been transformed as Republicans embrace a new priority in an election year.

The GOP legislation would beef up requirements for law enforcement to compile use-of-force reports under a new George Floyd and Walter Scott Notification Act, named for the Minnesota man whose May 25 death sparked worldwide protests over police violence, and Scott, a South Carolina man shot by police after a traffic stop in 2015. Scott is not related to the senator.

It would also establish the Breonna Taylor Notification Act to track “no-knock” warrants. The 26-year-old was killed this year after police in McConnell’s home state of Kentucky used a no-knock warrant to enter her Louisville home.

Focusing on ending chokeholds, the legislation encourages agencies to do away with the practice or risk losing federal funds — but does not require them to do so. Many big city departments have long stopped the use. The legislation also provides funding for training to “de-escalate” situations and establish a “duty to intervene” protocol to prevent excessive force.

The GOP effort seeks to reach across the aisle to Democrats in several ways. It includes one long-sought bill to make lynching a federal hate crime and another to launch a study of the social status of black men and boys that has been touted by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The Republican package — dubbed the “Just and Unifying Solutions To Invigorate Communities Everywhere Act of 2020” — also includes a bipartisan Senate proposal to establish a National Criminal Justice Commission Act and extends funding streams for various federal law enforcement programs, including the COPS program important to states.

The package includes a mix of other proposals, including tapping the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture to create a law enforcement training curriculum on “the history of racism in the United States.” Another closes a loophole to prohibit federal law enforcement officers from engaging in sexual acts with those being arrested or in custody.

Expenditures for the bill would be considered on an emergency basis, so as not to count against federal deficits.

The GOP proposal comes amid a crush of activity from Washington as President Donald Trump announced executive actions Tuesday to create a database of police misconduct.

At a Rose Garden event, he declared himself “committed to working with Congress on additional measures.”

Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick and Colleen Long contributed to this report.