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A Message from the Final Call: Hope or Hype in the House

Does Black Caucus police reform bill have any hope of passing through Congress or is talk of change overblown?

WASHINGTON—The police killing of a Black man in Atlanta brought federal legislation designed to increase police accountability and reform again to the forefront.

The shooting of Rayshard Brooks in a Wendy’s parking lot brought anger, pain and questions about how to ensure things change. Dozens march in Chicago in solidarity against police brutality. Photo: Haroon Rajaee

Thousands have joined anti-police brutality protests nationwide and police budget cuts and other moves have been promised or enacted at the local and state level. Yet, passage of a federal bill that expands control, standards and consequences for bad policing remains far from guaranteed.

And, if effective police reform can’t be done in the current political and social climate, how much change does America, her leaders and her people truly want?

The Congressional Black Caucus, members of the House Judiciary Committee, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris unveiled a legislative package in early June that would ban chokeholds, require federal uniformed police officers to wear body cameras, create a National Police Misconduct Registry, set restrictions on the transfer of military-grade equipment to local law enforcement entities, and offer inducements to state and local governments to oversee racial bias training for law enforcement.

“This action is typical Democratic fare, but it does not go far enough to get to the crux of the issue. Banning chokeholds? Chokeholds have been banned in New York. Let’s ask Eric Garner what banning chokeholds did for him. We can’t, the New York Police Department choked him out,” said Dr. Wilmer Leon, a political scientist and regular contributor to, and The “The actions of the CBC are vacuous and lack substantive change. The national database is of value. The fact you track a cop’s history is fine, assuming police departments aren’t already doing that or don’t already know each other’s history. They are changing jobs and someone has to be aware of their previous history. They have to account for lapses on their employment record,” he said. “This Democratic legislation does not get to the crux of the matter. America is a racist country. I get to that by reading the Constitution. Racism was written in the document. Police are outgrowths of the slave patrols. Racism is written in the fabric of the country. Until this country deals with the ugliness of racism we won’t get anywhere. You have to be able to say exactly what it is.” Others are more supportive of the bill and what it intends to do. “The Justice in Policing Act is historic and long overdue legislation that will put our country on a path to reform. This act is responsive to many of the urgent demands being pressed for by our communities and by the people protesting for racial justice and equity across our nation,” said Kristen Clarke of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

“The brutal actions of police in George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, along with botched execution of a no-knock warrant that killed Breonna Taylor in Louisville, and the brazen vigilante execution of Ahmaud Arbery in Glynn County, Georgia, have pushed the nation to the tipping point,” said Waikinya J.S.Clanton, of MBA Black Millennial Convention.

“What the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others have taught us is that obedience will never be enough; liberty and justice for all applies to everyone but us; and by us, we mean Black Americans, African Americans, Afro-Americans, or plainly put, Black people.”

Major civil rights leaders signed on to a statement backing the Black Caucus legislation. “This legislation makes clear that police brutality, misconduct, harassment, and killing have no place in America. Many provisions in the bill reflect the insights of national and local civil rights organizations that have worked for years on these issues,” they said.

Two different visions of reform? Still, some Blacks who have worked in law enforcement said important aspects of reform were missing.

Matthew Fogg, a retired U.S. Marshal, said, “Several years ago I came up with the idea for the Uniform Reporting Law Enforcement Reporting Act for Blacks in Government. It’s transparency in documenting the pattern and practice of dirty cops around the country. We’ve realized these problems for a long time and wanted to come up with solutions. Banning chokeholds isn’t an answer when cops continue to use it like they did in New York. The problem is excessive force.”

“What is excessive force? The guy (Rayshard Brooks) they killed in Atlanta … was not posing a threat. That’s an example of excessive force. It’s White men showing dominance over Black men. They have a badge and gun and that gives them power as well as authority. Bigots with badges.”

“The bill does not address what recruits learn in the academy. Recruits may not be familiar with Black life and culture other than the stereotypes they see in the media,” commented Glen Hollis, a retired D.C. police detective.

“They need to know what our culture really is and what they may believe differs from the stereotypes. We are not the drug dealers and criminals they think. Black culture should be taught in the academy.”

There isn’t bi-partisan agreement on what reform looks like. Donald Trump has continued to call himself the “law and order president,” demanded toughness in the streets, and accused Democrats of desiring to curb policing to the point of anarchy. The president’s men, including Attorney General William Barr, have insisted racism is not a widespread problem in policing. Republicans in the House echoed that sentiment during hearings on policing, which included discussion of the Democratic bill. At Final Call press time, a Republican bill was expected to be unveiled June 17.

Retired Seattle police chief Norm Stamper said Americans shouldn’t be looking to President Trump or Attorney General William Barr to lead the way in implementing deeply needed police reform. They are not honest brokers and lack the ability or the willingness to provide leadership or viable solutions, he said.

“A.G. Barr is so closely aligned with his boss he can’t see straight. It’s time to discount these people,” said Chief Stamper, an author, consultant and advisor. “They are cheerleading for police brutality and violence. They are sad. Sick. Pathological. Change can’t and will not come from them. They need to be pushed to the sidelines. And in the spirit of the American Revolution they should be overthrown–peacefully.”

Disdain for two of the top law enforcement officers didn’t dull his optimism for activity at the local level—and belief that things can’t stay the same. “Police departments, no, I’ll say public safety, needs to be radically restructured. The public safety mechanism must be reliable, effective and aligned constitutionally. I think that we must have the capacity to fight violent crimes but we have to hold individuals accountable and be able to hold offenders,” he said.

But can local efforts be enough, can things really change without federal laws and standards?

Sponsors of the legislation say broadly, the bill would also work to end racial and religious profiling; hold police accountable in court and make prosecutions for misconduct easier; investigate police misconduct, grant the Justice Department Civil Rights Division subpoena power and create a grant program for state attorneys general to conduct independent investigations into problematic police departments; support community-based programs to change the culture of law enforcement and empower communities to reimagine public safety in an equitable and just way; study the impact of laws or rules that allow a law enforcement officer to delay answers to questions posed by investigators of law enforcement misconduct; require the Attorney General to collect data on investigatory actions and detentions by federal law enforcement agencies, the racial distribution of drug charges, the use of deadly force by and against law enforcement officers as well as traffic and pedestrian stops and detentions; mandate state and local law enforcement agencies report use of force data, disaggregated by race, sex, disability, religion, and age.

“There are 18,000 agencies, and if the D.O.J. (Department of Justice) is not involved in the process of implementation of these legislations, then these agencies are going to tweak it according to their own culture and policies,” predicted Cephus “Uncle Bobby” X Johnson, who’s nephew, Oscar Grant, III, was shot by a Bay Area Transit Police officer on New Year’s morning 2009 at the Fruitvale Station in Oakland, Calif.

National uniformity is needed to effect real police reform across the country, he said.

Two different pieces of federal legislation, one from the GOP and another from the Democrats, are in the works. Republicans are unlikely to tell state and local governments how to operate and oppose no knock police warrants. One focus will be on “best practices” for use of force by police, not federal mandates. Suing police officers, which Democrats want to make easier, isn’t likely to get Republican backing.

Tim Scott of South Carolina has been crafting the GOP package. He is the only Black Republican in the Senate.

“I think we’re going to get to a bill that actually becomes law,” Sen. Scott said June 14, on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Sen. Scott said the chokehold, in particular, “is a policy whose time has come and gone.”

The GOP package is one of the most extensive proposed overhauls to policing procedures yet from Republicans, who have long aligned with Mr. Trump’s “law and order” approach but are suddenly confronted with a groundswell of public unrest in cities large and small over police violence.

The Republican bill would create a national database of police use-of-force incidents, encourage police body cameras and include a long-stalled effort to make lynching a federal hate crime.

Additionally, the GOP package is expected to restrict the use of chokeholds by withholding certain federal funds to jurisdictions that continue to allow the practice, said a Senate Republican unauthorized to discuss the pending bill and granted anonymity. The Republican bill does not address “qualified immunity,” as the Democrats’ bill does, which aims to enable those injured by law enforcement personnel to sue for damages. The White House has said that is a line too far. As an alternative, Sen. Scott has suggested a “decertification” process for officers involved in misconduct.

“This is not a time for lowest common denominator, watered-down reforms,” said Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., a co-author of the Democratic bill, on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “It’s a time to stop the problem.”

Yet Democrats signaled a willingness to look at the Republican approach for areas of common ground.

“Nobody is going to defund the police,” said James Clyburn, a Black Democrat from South Carolina. “We can restructure the police forces, restructure, reimagine policing. That is what we are going to do.”

The Democrat-controlled House is expected to vote on the legislation the week of June 22. Leading Democrats and presumptive Democratic Party nominee Joe Biden have come out against those who call for defunding police, saying reform is necessary.

Black Caucus Chair Rep. Karen Bass said the package is in response to a groundswell of support for policing reforms.

Faith, doubt about real change Given fierce partisanship in Congress, the scorched-earth tactics often employed by Republicans and the tendency to often fall far from the mark legislatively, Jacqui Luqman, who has joined social and racial protests for a long time, isn’t confident that anything consequential will come from Congress.

“What politicians offer and what we want are two different things. They will always disagree with those things that cause us to be oppressed,” she said.

If a compromise bill passes in the GOP-dominated Senate, it could still be vetoed by Mr. Trump. Rev. Dr. Derrick Harkins, the senior vice president for innovations in public programming at Union Theological Seminary in the New York City, said he remains hopeful.

“I’ve been struck by the makeup of the protestors and the scope of who’s been part of the protests. The fact that they brought legislation this quickly illustrates the magnitude of the problem. The marches are working and the accelerated process will keep people accountable,” he said.

Police unions are likely to fight some reforms and some departments are already balking at talk of budget cuts. Some unions have put forward their own visions for police reform—including the Los Angeles Police Protective League and police officers’ associations in San Jose and San Francisco.

“That means nothing,” said human rights Attorney Nana Gyamfi. “Policing in itself, by its very definition, is racist so you can’t root out the racists. The issue is not an individual problem. It is a systemic problem. It is a group problem.”

“While people were #RunningforAhmaud (Arbery), these folks kept killing, and even as people have been in the streets raising and lifting up that Black Lives Matter, these cops keep killing,” she added. “That in itself should let us know that there is no reforming the devil! If the devil can’t look at this and see that, ‘Hmmm. Maybe I should operate differently,’ let us assume that they’re not going to operate differently,” she said.

“By changing laws, we do not affect conditions, because changing a law does not change attitudes or systems of belief. Pharaoh feared that Moses would change the religion which means he feared the drastic altering of the belief system which his world was built upon,” said Ishmael Muhammad, speaking June 14 from the Nation of Islam’s flagship mosque in Chicago. He is a top aide to Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan.

It will take more than another law on the books, he observed.

“Justice is a principle of fair dealing. We have never been dealt fairly since our fathers set the soles of their feet in the Western Hemisphere. Neither have our Indigenous brothers and sisters called Native Americans; they haven’t been dealt with fairly. Neither have the Mexicans and so many others. So, justice is what we want,” he said.

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