Rep. Richmond slams Senate GOP’s ‘watered-down’ police reform bill

By: and - June 25, 2020 12:59 pm
Cedric Richmond

Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA) (Photo by Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond — a leading voice on Capitol Hill for a major legislative overhaul that would address police brutality against people of color — backed his party’s efforts Wednesday to shut down debate on a GOP police reform bill.

The bill — which Senate Democrats blocked in a procedural vote on Wednesday — doesn’t rise to the moment, he told the Illuminator in an interview. 

“I would not let them pass that luke-warm, watered-down bill and let them act like they did something in response to this national movement,” said Richmond, Louisiana’s lone Democratic member of Congress.

Other Democratic lawmakers and civil rights advocates echoed the sentiment.

“The American people deserve more than political posturing,” members of the Congressional Black Caucus wrote Monday in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

McConnell called Democratic objections “nonsense” on the Senate floor Wednesday and said Democrats could offer amendments to the bill during floor debate. “The American people deserve an outcome, and we cannot get an outcome if Democrats will not even let us begin.

GOP Sen. Bill Cassidy, of Baton Rouge, agreed, saying Democrats could also negotiate differences with Republicans at points in the legislative process before a vote on final passage.

“To speak about this being the world’s greatest deliberative body when you use none of those tools in my mind means that you don’t want to debate at all,” he told the Illuminator. “It’s not deliberation; it’s shut down. It’s unfortunate.”

Richmond said Democratic efforts to modify the bill would likely fail in a chamber dominated by Republicans. “They would defeat every amendment.”

Cassidy retorted: “It doesn’t have to be shirts versus skins.”

Cassidy told the Illuminator he had been working on an amendment that a Democratic colleague was considering backing until he received word that party leaders intended to block floor consideration of the bill.

“At some point you gotta do the work, and that’s what frustrates me,” he said.

Differences between House and Senate bills

Sen. Tim Scott, a Black Republican from South Carolina, unveiled the GOP’s police reform proposal last week.

The bill would give police departments incentives to ban chokeholds, 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 things.

Unlike a House Democratic bill backed by Richmond, 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.

There is some overlap between the Democratic and Republican proposals, including a provision that would make lynching a federal crime, according to The Hill.

Partisan objections to the bills mirror each other, Cassidy said. “The criticism of their bill is that it federalizes law enforcement. The criticism of our bill is that it doesn’t impose enough federal standards.”

On Wednesday, McConnell tried — and failed — to bring Scott’s bill to the floor for debate.

Fifty-five senators — including Cassidy and Louisiana’s other senator, Republican John Kennedy — backed the effort to advance the bill. But the bill fell five votes short of the 60 it needed to move forward, effectively shutting down debate on it.

The House is expected to vote later this week on the Democrats’ package, called the Justice in Policing Act. More than 218 other lawmakers have signed on to the bill, virtually ensuring its passage through the Democratic-led chamber.

Richmond — a member of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over the issue — is the only member of Louisiana’s delegation backing the Democratic bill.

None of the state’s five other House lawmakers — all of whom are Republican — had signed on to the measure as of Wednesday morning.

GOP Rep. Mike Johnson, who sits on the Judiciary Committee with Richmond, questioned the Democratic approach in a recent hearing.

“We can and should clearly condemn the senseless violence we’ve seen and all causes of it, from a few bad apples wearing a badge to the bad actors and anarchists sparking riots and destruction in our streets,” said Johnson, whose 4th District includes the Shreveport-Bossier City area. “At the same time, we can work together on meaningful reforms and real results while upholding the respect and appreciation that is due to every American patriot who faithfully serves us on the thin blue line.”

GOP Rep. Clay Higgins, District 3, meanwhile, expressed strong opposition to the Democratic bill, saying in a statement that it “would most certainly legislate many of America’s best, most experienced street cops out of law enforcement.”

Cassidy said the Democratic proposal has “things of merit” but emphasized the need for local control.

“There has to be a culture of justice, but each city would have its own imprint, just like New Orleans is different than Miami. And so you should allow that adjustment to that imprint. And the criticism against a one-size-fits-all would be that you don’t allow it. Wouldn’t that be a great thing to debate, to figure out where the right point is? But they won’t even allow a debate.”

Kennedy, meanwhile, objected to Democratic efforts to address qualified immunity, according to Roll Call. “I don’t want a police officer to hesitate because he’s worried about losing his home or retirement savings,” he said. “If you hesitate a second, you can lose your life.”

Majority of state delegation backs GOP approach

Most of Louisiana’s federal lawmakers back the GOP’s approach.

Cassidy and Kennedy have added their names to Scott’s bill. And Johnson and Reps. Steve Scalise, Ralph Abraham and Garret Graves — have signed on to a House version of it.

Higgins is not listed as a cosponsor, and his spokesman did not say whether he supports it.

Scalise, the House Republican Whip and a survivor of a shooting in Washington, D.C., urged lawmakers to support the GOP bill, which he said would root out “bad apples while also recognizing the important role law enforcement officers play in keeping our communities safe.”

Johnson, meanwhile, has connected with Richmond about the issue and believes they both want to find areas of compromise, his spokeswoman, Whitley Alexander, said in an email.

President Donald Trump has said he would support congressional action on police reform. But it’s unclear how Senate Republicans will respond if the House passes the Democratic bill.

Asked if a path forward exists, Cassidy said perhaps — but expressed doubt. “A cynic would say they don’t desire a solution, they desire to throw stones. … I’m hoping the cynic is not right.”

Richmond said a broad, diverse movement is demanding change and that House passage of the Democratic bill could push the Senate to move toward his party’s more sweeping approach.

“We have a real opportunity for meaningful, bipartisan reform, and we should not let this moment go to waste,” he said, comparing the Democratic measure to major civil rights legislation of the 1960s.

Richmond has drawn national attention for his vocal support for efforts to address police brutality in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died last month while in police custody — an event that has spurred massive civil unrest in recent weeks. Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis officer, was fired and has since been charged with second-degree murder.

At a hearing last week, Richmond engaged in a heated exchange with Florida GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz, who challenged Richmond’s assertion that white people may not be able to grasp the full effects of systemic racism. “If the shoe fits … ” Richmond told Gaetz.

Gaetz later revealed that he lives with an immigrant teen whom he refers to as his son.

Black people comprise 13% of the population but represented nearly a quarter (24%) of police killings in 2019, according to the Congressional Black Caucus.

Richmond chastised opponents of his party’s “good” and “fair” bill to address police brutality.

“History is not going to judge you well for voting against sensible police reform,” he said. “Too many of my delegation are going to be on that opposite side.”

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Allison Stevens
Allison Stevens

Allison Stevens is a Washington D.C. reporter for States Newsroom, a network of state-based nonprofit news outlets that includes the Louisiana Illuminator.

Jarvis DeBerry
Jarvis DeBerry

Jarvis DeBerry, former editor of the Louisiana Illuminator, spent 22 years at The Times-Picayune (and later as a crime and courts reporter, an editorial writer, columnist and deputy opinions editor. He was on the team of Times-Picayune journalists awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service after that team’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina and the deadly flood that followed. In addition to the shared Pulitzer, DeBerry has won awards from the Louisiana Bar Association for best trial coverage and awards from the New Orleans Press Club, the Louisiana/ Mississippi Associated Press and the National Association of Black Journalists for his columns. A collection of his Times-Picayune columns, “I Feel to Believe” was published by the University of New Orleans Press in September 2020.