New Senate Police Reform Bill Looks to Increase Accountability and Promote De-Escalation Training to ‘Rebuild Lost Trust’

Senate Republicans have introduced a large bill of police reform called the JUSTICE Act that includes measures to improve reporting, increase penalties for officers falsifying police reports, offer funding for additional training programs in de-escalation and non-violent policing, and to create a new Criminal Justice Commission that will continually make recommendations on how to reform every level of the criminal justice system with the citizen’s safety and rights as the central consideration.

In the wake of everything that’s happened since George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, state and now federal legislatures have been listening to the petitions of millions of Americans asking for more police accountability, less violence in policing, fewer laws which create discriminatory policing, and more.

Good News Network has already reported on the introduction and passage of laws in both Colorado and in Kentucky that increase police accountability, and ban “no-knock” police warrants, respectively.

At the federal level, House Libertarian Justin Amash has introduced, along with Democratic support, a bill that would roll back the doctrine of qualified immunity, which makes it extremely difficult for a private citizen to bring a police officer up on charges for rights violations.

The JUSTICE Act goes quite a bit further than that, albeit in a different direction. Created by African American Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) and 46 other co-sponsors from the right side of the isle, the JUSTICE Act is a large piece of police reform with an aim to “improve and reform policing practices, accountability and transparency”.

“Now is the time for reform,” Senator Scott said on his website. “The murder of George Floyd and its aftermath made clear from sea to shining sea that action must be taken to rebuild lost trust between communities of color and law enforcement.”

“The JUSTICE Act takes smart, commonsense steps to address these issues, from ending the use of chokeholds and increasing the use of body worn cameras, to providing resources for police departments to better train officers and make stronger hiring decisions.”

With several measures involving the reporting and hiring of police officers, it also includes funding stipulations and penalties for certain police tactics that have drawn significant criticism since the killing of George Floyd, including choke holds, which are described in the “Sense of Congress” section as extremely dangerous.

Here are some other major articles in the JUSTICE Act.

Hiring and training
One criticism of police accountability since the protests over George Floyd’s death began has been departments’ reluctance to fire officers involved in deadly use-of-force situations with citizens, particularly as it related to the killing of Breonna Taylor or Tamir Rice, where in both cases the officers that did the shooting are still policing, or in other cases where officers are re-hired in other departments.

To this end the JUSTICE Act has several responses. The first is for the commission of a government database that is publicly-accessible containing the disciplinary record or internal investigation record regarding any law enforcement officer, to be held no less than 30 years, and to be accessed and consulted before a hiring decision is made.

As many other articles in the bill state, any government, state, local, or Native American tribe that receives policing funding from the federal government will be ineligible to receive further funds if the creation of such a database be postponed or ignored.

Large swaths of the bill also involve officer training. Many protesters have objected to the use of deadly or excessive force by officers, and the JUSTICE Act aims to address this by establishing the following:

  • Charging the Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture to “develop and nationally disseminate a curriculum to educate eligible program participants on the history of racism in the United States”.
  • Implementing such education programs that focus on racial reconciliation with the goal of understanding the history of racism in America, and improving relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve.
  • The Attorney General shall in consultation with relevant law enforcement agencies representing rank and file law enforcement officers, shall develop a training curriculum for agencies and officers on the development, implementation, and enforcement of a “duty of a law enforcement officer to intervene when another law enforcement officer is engaged in excessive use of force.”
  • The Attorney General shall also develop in consultation with similar or identical relevant agencies and authorities, a training curriculum on alternatives to use of force.
  • De-escalation tactics and safely responding to a person experiencing a behavioral health crisis, including techniques and strategies that are designed to protect the safety of the person experiencing it, law enforcement officers, and the public, will also be coached, and the programs can be designed by private or public organizations.

And again, the failure to implement training programs within a particular government law-enforcement agency places such agency at risk of losing funding entirely.

Body cameras and holding police accountable
Also included in the bill are measures to enhance police accountability, starting with the use of body cameras. Cameras worn on the vest or body of police officers has emerged as a potentially-effective way of enhancing accountability among law-enforcement officers.

In Colorado, the use of body cameras was included in their new accountability legislation, with requirements that they should be switched on 5 seconds before and after any interaction with a citizen in which policing may occur.

As with other articles in the bill, failure to comply with the subsections including the mandating of programs that involve the training in usage of, appropriate storage of recorded material from body-worn cameras can result in a drop in funding for that department.

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At the top of the JUSTICE ACT, the George Floyd and Walter Scott, and the Breonna Taylor Notification Acts create a detailed, publicly-accessible database of all incidents involving the use of deadly force during a confrontation with a citizen, and while serving a no-knock police warrant.

Contained within will be the identity of the police officers involved, the date and time and reason for the event/warrant service, the citizens harmed or killed – their race, gender, income status, etc., and whether any warrants or procedure were correctly served. Information within the databases will be accessible to any Freedom of Information Act Requests, providing it doesn’t involve details that may compromise ongoing criminal investigations.

Finally, new fining and sentencing guidelines are established for police officers found guilty of falsifying police reports, with jail sentences of 20 years or more for those knowingly lying in cases when the officer used deadly force.

The new National Criminal Justice Commission
Title 7 of the bill states: “It is in the interest of the United States to establish a commission to undertake a comprehensive review of the criminal justice system,” noting that “there has not been a comprehensive study since the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice was established in 1965.”

Therefore if passed, the JUSTICE Act would see the creation of a National Criminal Justice Commission that would “undertake a comprehensive review of all areas of the criminal justice system, including the criminal justice costs, practices, and policies of the Federal, State, local, and Tribal governments.”

“Not later than 18 months after the date of the first meeting of the Commission, the Commission shall submit to the President and Congress recommendations for changes in Federal oversight, policies, practices, and laws designed to prevent, deter, and reduce crime and violence, reduce recidivism, improve cost-effectiveness, and ensure the interests of justice at every step of the criminal justice system,” reads subsection b.

All information and recommendations would be made publicly available, and if a quorum is present at the time of reporting, recommendations can be immediately voted on.

This commission will conduct public town-hall style hearings from citizens across the country, and if the Commission is tasked with recommending changes to laws as a means to “to prevent, deter, and reduce crime and violence, reduce recidivism, improve cost-effectiveness,” there is a chance such a commission could be deeply persuaded by the stories of those most-affected by violent or unjust policing.

This mechanism might allow citizens to cause the roll back of policing protocols and legal precedents that make it very difficult for police officers to face legal repercussions for violent, unlawful, or discriminatory conduct, such as the qualified immunity doctrine, any states’ versions of an officer’s bill of rights, or civil asset forfeiture (like they did in Connecticut 3 years ago), and more.

While not outrightly banning many of the things which protesters, angry about the killings of black men and women in America, most want to see banned, such as the court precedent for qualified immunity, the JUSTICE Act would go a long way to providing a base upon which better relationships between police and communities could be established.