Senate Can't Shirk Police-Reform Duty

By Corey Friedman

June 27, 2020 6 min read

Police stormed Breonna Taylor's apartment as she slept and sprayed her with gunfire, leaving the 26-year-old emergency medical technician to die in a pool of blood.

The Louisville woman's March 13 killing is still under investigation — her boyfriend had fired on police, believing them to be burglars — but the no-knock warrant that authorized the risky raid was routine.

Law enforcement agencies execute roughly 20,000 high-risk search warrants each year, the vast majority in drug cases. Washington Post opinion journalist Radley Balko, author of "Rise of the Warrior Cop," told National Public Radio those annual raids result in 20-30 suspect deaths and "about eight to 10 cases per year where a completely innocent person is killed."

A relic of the Richard Nixon- and Ronald Reagan-era drug war, the no-knock raid places officers, suspects and bystanders in mortal danger over victimless crimes. The special search warrants are issued to prevent violent resistance, escape or destruction of evidence. It's the last scenario that really curls a cop's mustache — flushing dope down the toilet might preempt a perp walk.

After Taylor's killing, Louisville city officials banned no-knock warrants. If justice prevails over politics on Capitol Hill, the rest of the nation will follow.

The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a comprehensive law enforcement reform measure, cleared the Democratic-led House on a 236-181 vote Thursday. It faces an uphill climb in the Republican-majority Senate, where a competing reform bill fell five votes short of a floor debate.

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., pitched his JUSTICE Act as a serious effort to end racial disparities in policing and prevent police killings of unarmed Black Americans. Democratic senators refused to consider it, with critics noting it's chock-full of study panels and half-measures.

Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, introduced the Justice in Policing Act with full support from House Democrats and the backing of influential leaders in the police accountability movement. Speaker Nancy Pelosi extolled the legislation in a victory-lap press conference held before a scheduled vote.

A new Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll shows nearly all Americans support reform that includes clear standards on use of force and punishment for police brutality. Yet, Congress could squander the opportunity to lead and fall victim to petty partisanship.

GovTrack predictions from analytics and artificial intelligence firm Skopos Labs give the House bill a 23% chance of becoming law. Scott's counteroffer barely registers at 2%.

The Justice in Policing Act is a better vehicle for reform not only because it has crossed over to the other chamber but also because it delivers on promises its Senate counterpart isn't even willing to make. It bans no-knock warrants in drug cases on the federal level and requires states to do the same in order to qualify for lucrative law enforcement grants. Scott's bill instructs agencies to report statistical information about no-knock raids to the attorney general's office for further study.

Bass's bill includes a laundry list of fixes including a ban on chokeholds, a body-camera requirement and a national misconduct registry that would prevent bad cops from remaining in law enforcement by playing musical chairs across state and jurisdictional lines.

The legislation also rewrites the doctrine of qualified immunity, a legal privilege that allows police officers to dodge lawsuits. Under a modified definition, people could sue cops in their individual capacities for constitutional rights violations.

Scott's bill sought grinding, incremental change and suffered from a lack of ambition, failing to abolish no-knock raids and rein in qualified immunity even as libertarian-leaning Republican Sen. Rand Paul proposed both measures in his own freestanding legislation.

If Republicans read the room, they'll engage with Senate Democrats to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. The effort can still be a bipartisan triumph: Scott, as the only African American GOP senator, and Paul, as a surveillance-state skeptic, should serve as their party's chief negotiators.

Paul and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell represent Kentucky, where Breonna Taylor's senseless killing first sounded the clarion call to end dangerous no-knock police raids. These home-state senators have the chance to help accomplish that goal. They owe it to Taylor's memory to try.

Corey Friedman is an opinion journalist who explores solutions to political conflicts from an independent perspective. Follow him on Twitter @coreywrites. To find out more about Corey Friedman and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

Photo by Ryan Kosmides

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