By Trevor Hunnicutt
Nearly a year after President Joe Biden called for “real action” on police brutality as part of a pledge to fix U.S. racial inequality, he is coming up against the limits of presidential power.
The White House shelved a proposed police oversight commission this week to focus on a police reform bill that has narrow hopes in Congress. The move comes as anger grows over the killing of another Black man, Daunte Wright, who was stopped by police just miles from where George Floyd was killed last May.
Though Democrats, Republicans, police unions and civil rights activists agree that U.S. policing must change, there still appears to be no immediate path to broad national reform, activists say.
“It kind of feels as if we’re stuck,” said DeAnna Hoskins, a former Justice Department policy adviser and now president of JustLeadershipUSA, an advocacy group. “The good intentions are there, but we also know good intentions pave the road to hell.”
The U.S. has a far higher rate of police killing of civilians than other wealthy countries, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Black men are more than twice as likely to die in police custody than white men, a 2018 study showed.
GEORGE FLOYD ACT
The Biden White House shelved the idea of a police oversight commission this week, after consulting with police unions and civil rights activists, since past administrations had already tried the idea.
Instead, it will put its weight behind a broad reform bill known as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, while revamping the Justice Department, which holds the administration’s most tangible power over police departments.
However the bill, which passed the House of Representatives in March, is being fought by police unions and Republicans. Both support some reforms, including restricting police chokeholds and deploying body cameras, but oppose limiting “qualified immunity,” which shields officers accused of crimes from lawsuits.
The Fraternal Order of Police labor group has discussed police reform with Biden administration officials, but has not indicated support for the bill, said spokeswoman Jessica Cahill. “We will reserve our comments for internal discussions with legislators,” while the bill is still being negotiated, she said.
That may leave the issue short of the 60 Senate votes it would need to overcome a legislative filibuster and secure passage.
The police group, the nation’s largest with more than 355,000 members, endorsed former President Donald Trump over Biden in the 2020 campaign.
Civil rights advocates, on the other hand, want the bill beefed up with items like restrictions on the transfer of military equipment to police departments. Biden could also do more with executive orders, some say.
Asked about activists’ demands Wednesday, press secretary Jen Psaki said the White House is “working very closely with them on pushing for the passage of the George Floyd Act.”
“I know that does not solve all the issues, we’re not suggesting that,” she said. Biden’s presidency is less than 100 days old, she said, adding “there is more to come.”
PRESIDENTS AND POLICE OVERSIGHT
The White House has no direct oversight of 18,000 local police departments and similar agencies.
President Barack Obama, who Biden served under as vice president from 2009 to 2017, made halting progress on police reform. Without major legislation, the DOJ ramped up investigations and recommended reforms on local police departments found to systematically abuse civil rights. Trump’s administration shelved many of those efforts.
Biden officials are hoping to reinvigorate earlier efforts with his nominee to lead the DOJ civil rights division, Kristen Clarke, who previously called for defunding some policing operations and funneling the money into other community needs.
Clarke faced sharp questions from Republicans in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday on the topic. She said did not support defunding the police, but was advocating for law enforcement to be more effective by “channeling resources to emotional health treatment and other severely under-resourced areas,” she said.
Civil rights advocates, meanwhile, are pushing for broader reforms.
Both Wright and Floyd’s fatal encounters with police were for relatively minor infractions: an expired vehicle registration and a suspected counterfeit $20 bill.
Low-level misdemeanor crimes, including marijuana use, should be treated more leniently to reduce the likelihood of deadly interactions with law enforcement, advocates say. Some are also pushing for DOJ subpoena power to investigate police departments. Both measures also require congressional action.
Lauren-Brooke Eisen, director of the justice program at the Brennan Center, a legal advocacy group, says there is a growing number of people who believe police officers should not be called to respond to as many incidents as they do.
“As a country we should be focusing on ways to shrink law enforcement’s contact with our community,” she said.