Three Republicans join House Democrats in passing sweeping police reform

A woman makes a peace sign before a line of police preparing to advance upon demonstrators after a rally by President Donald Trump at the Phoenix Convention Center on Aug. 22, 2017. (Photo by David McNew/ Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House passed a sweeping police reform package Thursday night in response to massive civil unrest over police brutality.

The package cleared the chamber largely along partisan lines, with 236 lawmakers (mostly Democrats) voting for it and 181 lawmakers (180 Republicans and one Independent) voting against it. Three Republicans sided with Democrats in backing the bill — Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Fred Upton of Michigan and Will Hurd of Texas.

Iowa’s three Democratic representatives voted for the bill. Rep. Steve King, R-4th District, who lost the June 2 primary election, was one of 14 lawmakers who didn’t vote Thursday night.

Head shot of Cindy Axne
U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne is a Democrat who represents Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District.

Rep. Cindy Axne, D-3rd District, called the bill “our first step toward making change a reality for Black Americans across our country, tackling not only racism and bias in our institutions, but it also making direct and necessary changes that will save lives and hold law enforcement accountable.”

Axne noted that the Iowa Legislature and local communities including Des Moines have passed their own policing reform measures.  “Just as we have seen at the municipal and state level in Iowa, I am hopeful that these reforms at the federal level can also be negotiated in a bipartisan fashion – and that we can continue to move swiftly and methodically to achieve real transparency and accountability for our communities,” she said in a statement.

U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer is a Democrat who represents Iowa’s 1st District. (Photo courtesy of Rep. Abby Finkenauer’s office)

Rep. Abby Finkenauer, D-1st District, called the legislation “historic.”

“I was proud to vote yes on this historic legislation,”  Finkenauer said in a statement. “I know, however, that more must be done to guarantee justice for all. I remain committed to listening to Iowans, having the hard conversations and fighting to ensure equality and dignity for every Iowan and every American.”

Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-2nd District, said Iowans often talk to him about the need for more accountability and transparency from law enforcement agencies.

U.S. Rep. David Loebsack is a Democrat from Iowa City. (Photo courtesy of Rep. David Loebsack’s office)

“I am pleased this bill sets up a comprehensive approach to improving accountability, transparency, and the training and best practices employed by law enforcement officers across the nation,” Loebsack said in a statement.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., hailed the package on the House floor Thursday, saying it would “fundamentally transform the culture of policing to address systemic racism, curb police brutality and save lives.”

But the bill — passed one month after George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was killed while in police custody — is unlikely to become law.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Ky., tried and failed to advance a less expansive GOP bill Wednesday and is not expected to take up the Democrats’ more comprehensive measure.

President Donald Trump, meanwhile, threatened on Wednesday to veto the Democratic bill, arguing it would deter people from pursuing law enforcement careers, erode public safety and weaken relationships between police departments and communities.

House Republican Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., urged Democrats to instead “get on board” with the GOP bill, which he said “has a real shot at becoming law.”

The Democratic legislation would ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants at the federal level, bar racial profiling, limit the transfer of military-grade equipment to state and local law enforcement officials and make it easier to prosecute police misconduct in the courts by eliminating the “qualified immunity” doctrine that shields law enforcement officials from lawsuits, among other things.

The bill drew objections from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which called increased funding for law enforcement a non-starter. “The role of policing has to be smaller, more circumscribed and less funded with taxpayer dollars,” ACLU legislative counsel Kanya Bennett  said in a statement when the bill was introduced this month. 

House passage comes a day after Senate Democrats blocked a GOP bill authored by Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only Black Republican in the Senate GOP conference.

Scott’s bill would provide incentives for departments to increase the use of body cameras, improve training in de-escalation tactics and require that performance records be taken into greater account when making hiring decisions. It would also increase data collection on the use of force, weapon discharge and no-knock warrants, among other provisions.

Unlike the Democratic bill, it would not ban chokeholds or no-knock warrants at the federal level or make it easier for victims of police brutality to sue officers and seek damages. Nor would it bar racial and religious profiling or limit the transfer of military-grade equipment to state and local law enforcement officials.

McConnell tried to bring the bill to the floor Wednesday, but he fell five votes short of the 60 votes he needed to advance it.

Democrats and leading civil rights advocates called the Senate GOP bill “weak” and said it failed to live up to an historic moment in which diverse coalitions of protesters are taking to the streets to demand racial justice and equality in the wake of Floyd’s death. Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis officer who kneeled on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, was fired and has been charged with second-degree murder.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called the GOP bill “weak tea” on the Senate floor Wednesday. He cited a letter from civil rights groups who said the bill “falls woefully short of the comprehensive reform needed to address the current policing crisis and achieve meaningful law enforcement accountability.”

On the other side of the Capitol, Pelosi said the GOP bill is “inconsistent with a genuine belief that Black lives matter” and said she hopes passage of the Democratic bill will force the Senate to act. The Senate, she said, has the choice to either honor Floyd’s life or do nothing.

McConnell, meanwhile, painted Democrats with the do-nothing label. “Our Democratic colleagues tried to say with straight faces that they want the Senate to discuss police reform — while they blocked the Senate from discussing police reform,” he said Thursday.