June 16, 2020

Feinstein on Policing: ‘Meaningful Reform is Long Overdue’

Washington—Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) today delivered the following remarks at the hearing on “Police Use of Force and Community Relations.”

Full video of her remarks is available here.

“On May 25, a Minneapolis police officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd for almost nine minutes. Mr. Floyd repeatedly said ‘I can’t breathe.’ Bystanders begged the officer to stop. But he continued to choke Mr. Floyd until his body went limp, his life extinguished.

Now, what was the unforgiveable crime that led an officer – an officer – to kill this unarmed 46-year-old Black man? He was suspected of using a counterfeit $20 bill to buy groceries during a global pandemic. Personally, this is beyond anything I can imagine and I hope it is beyond anything you can imagine.

George Floyd isn’t the first unarmed Black man or woman to be killed by police. The names are etched into this country’s consciousness:

  • Breonna Taylor, an emergency medical worker shot eight times by Louisville, Kentucky police while asleep in her home.

  • Eric Garner, choked to death by an NYPD officer for selling cigarettes.

  • Freddie Gray, killed after being taken into custody by Baltimore police for possessing a knife.

  • Walter Scott, shot in the back by North Charleston police after being stopped for a bad brake light.

  • Stephon Clark, killed by Sacramento police in his grandmother’s backyard for breaking windows.

  • Michael Brown, shot six times by Ferguson police while his hands were raised in the air.

And just last weekend, the Atlanta police were called to respond to reports of a young man asleep in his car and blocking a fast food restaurant’s drive-through. Even though the young man moved his car to a nearby space when asked by the police, the encounter ended when Rayshard Brooks was shot in the back twice as he ran away.

I don’t know how anyone can read these stories or see the videos and not conclude that something is radically wrong in this country and that we got to move to stop this epidemic of deadly force against Black Americans.

I remember well the call to action in 2014 after Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Missouri. President Obama’s convened the Task Force on 21st Century Policing. That task force provided a roadmap to reform law enforcement. Unfortunately though, the task force’s recommendations have not been followed and instead have been largely abandoned under President Trump’s watch.

For example, in August 2017, the Trump administration lifted President Obama’s ban on the transfer of certain military equipment to police departments. That ban was put in place by President Obama consistent with the task force’s finding that the use of military-style weapons and riot gear escalated tensions between police and the communities they serve.

The Trump administration has similarly abandoned the use of ‘pattern or practice’ investigations to identify and remedy systemic problems within police departments.      

Congress gave the Department of Justice authority to conduct pattern or practice investigations following the following the horrific police beating of Rodney King in my home state, California. And since then, most administrations have really used that tool effectively.

The Obama administration, for example, opened 25 investigations into possible illegal patterns or practices within law enforcement agencies. Several of these investigations resulted actually in consent decrees that set out specific reforms designed to shift police culture and end systemic problems.

Now by contrast, according to public reporting, the Trump administration has opened just one narrow pattern or practice investigation that focuses on a single unit of the Springfield Police Department in Massachusetts.

Remarkably, in the wake of George Floyd’s death, Attorney General Barr has refused to open a pattern or practice investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department. How can that be?

Anyone who has seen the video of George Floyd’s last nine minutes of life has seen that none of the officers at the scene objected or intervened to help a man who was pleading for his life. And I think the video shows the truth in that.

So enough is enough. Last week, Senators Booker and Harris introduced the Justice in Policing Act. That’s a bill that would implement many of the recommendations of the Task Force on 21st Century Policing and require real accountability for police use of force. I want to commend them and thank them. Mr. Chairman, I hope this committee will take that bill seriously, we can hold hearings. We can process it and perhaps we can make some progress.

This isn’t a simple bill, it’s quite comprehensive. It addresses tough issues and it makes notable changes. Let me just list a couple:

  • It bans the use of chokeholds or carotid holds by law enforcement officers.

  • It prohibits the use of racial profiling by police officers. In other words, ending police targeting of individuals for criminal investigation based on their race, ethnicity or national origin. Long overdue.

  • It creates a police misconduct registry that would collect the disciplinary or termination history of officers so that potential employers would be aware of an officer’s past misconduct.

  • It gives subpoena authority to the Justice Department to conduct pattern or practice investigations, which would ensure that investigators could obtain all the information they need to conduct thorough investigations of systemic police misconduct.

  • And it also eliminates the defense of ‘qualified immunity’ so that police officers are held accountable for misconduct.

These are difficult issues but they must be addressed. I really want to congratulate both of my colleagues for putting this bill together and bringing it to us.

Meaningful reform is long overdue, Mr. Chairman, and I look forward to our careful evaluation of this bill over the coming weeks. So thank you Senators Booker and Harris, as well as Representatives Bass and Nadler, for your leadership on this issue.

Mr. Chairman, you and I spoke in the days after George Floyd’s killing. I remember you saying that his death was ‘horrific’ – that is actually the word you used – and said both of us were ‘appalled at what we saw.’ You were right. You also said this hearing – and hopefully more to follow – will explore ‘better policing’ and ‘racial discrimination regarding the use of force.’

I was so delighted to hear you say that and I’m delighted that you’re beginning to carry that out which is what I interpret this hearing to be. So I trust that this will not be the committee’s final word. I hope we will be able to have Attorney General Barr before us. He has not agreed to come thus far.

But among other things, the attorney general needs to explain why the Justice Department appears to have abandoned pattern or practice cases – and, specifically, why the department has declined to open a broader investigation into police misconduct within the Minneapolis Police Department following George Floyd’s killing.

Mr. Chairman, we have much to do. I don’t we can leave these happenings in abeyance without taking action. And so I trust we will do just that.”

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