Upton joins House Dems in passing sweeping police reform

Police form a line to disallow access for a protest march through Center City on June 1, 2020 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. | Mark Makela/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 U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (L-Cascade Twp.) —voting against it. Three Republicans sided with Democrats in backing the bill — U.S. Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) and Will Hurd (R-Texas).

“Today marks the one-month anniversary of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis. Since then, the resulting protests have demanded not to just dismiss racism but dismantle it,” Upton said. “This evening the U.S. House took action and voted to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. This bill is by no means perfect. The process has been far from perfect. But we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

But Upton stressed that he did not support the “qualified immunity” doctrine that shields law enforcement officials from lawsuits, which makes it easier to prosecute police misconduct in the courts. The Republican argued it would make it harder to recruit good police officers. He also said that “calls to ‘defund the police’ are absolutely the wrong answer.”

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Michigan’s delegation was split 7-7, thanks to Upton joining Dems and Amash voting with the GOP.

U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-Dryden) voted no and blamed Democrats for failing to be “collaborative” in the legislation.

“It is disappointing that, yet again, Congress has fallen into our respective partisan camps,” he said. “The American people are rightfully asking us for change, yet politics and party messaging has taken precedence over concrete reforms.”

But U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, second vice chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said the House took “decisive action to address longstanding, systemic racial bias in our law enforcement system.

“Together, we will continue to hold police departments across the country accountable and demand transparency in all cases of misconduct because that is what Americans deserve,” she said.

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U.S. 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.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) tried and failed to advance a modest 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.”

U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wisc.) added of Democrats and the media, “They want to tear this country apart. They want to enrage black people and they want to make white people feel guilty and not like America.”

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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, 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 U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only Black Republican in the Senate GOP conference.

Scott’s bill would incentivize 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.

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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.

Allison Stevens
Allison Stevens is a reporter for States Newsroom's Washington, D.C. bureau.
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Susan J. Demas is a 19-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.