PAYSON — Democratic Rep. Tom O’Halleran — a former police officer — has signed on as one of the primary co-sponsors of a bundle of police reform measures poised to pass the House.
The Republican Senate is working on its own package of reforms and President Donald Trump has advanced a series of executive orders to implement reforms as well.
However, Rep. Paul Gosar’s support for key elements of the House Democrats’ proposal may signal the chance for quick, bipartisan action on a negotiated package of reforms. Gosar’s one of the most conservative members of the House but praised many parts of the House package.
So far, the House Democrats’ package is the only proposal with details available. The House late last week was trying to round up as many Republican votes as possible, hoping to offer the proposal as a bipartisan response to the nationwide protests that have erupted following the death of George Floyd as a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
O’Halleran represents Congressional District 1, which covers most of Pinal County as well as the Navajo, Hopi and Apache reservations. Flagstaff’s the largest city in the district, which also includes Show Low and Pinetop-Lakeside.
Gosar’s district includes Florence, Apache Junction, Gold Canyon and San Tan Valley as well as Prescott, the Verde Valley and the western third of the state along the Colorado River.
In response to an email request for comment, Gosar said things like greater use of body cameras, a ban on no-knock warrants, restrictions on civil asset forfeiture and a crackdown on excessive use of force all make sense.
“The police in this country have lost the support of millions of Americans who do not trust their judgment,” Gosar said. “From the murder of Mr. Floyd to harassing suburban moms in a park, or old people on a beach, law enforcement has created a trust problem for themselves. That being said, I support our law enforcement. We have given them a very difficult job — to enforce the very laws Congress, and state and local lawmakers, create. Enforcement by its nature, when done against those who violate these laws is always by force. Without force, or the threat of force, no laws would be honored. The entire nation condemns the manner in which Mr. Floyd was detained and how he died. But I will not label all police officers, all law enforcement agencies, as “bad actors” who want to maim and kill out of racial hatred, because one officer in Minneapolis acted illegally,” Gosar concluded.
O’Halleran commented, “As a member of Congress, I have spent much of my time in the House of Representatives focused on legislation to hold elected officials accountable to their constituents. In co-sponsoring this bill, I am joining my colleagues in both chambers to hold another group of public servants accountable to tax-paying American families. As a former law enforcement officer myself, I know how important it is that those who have sworn to protect and serve are held to the highest standards. Every American deserves to feel safe in his or her community.”
House Democrats have rushed to put together the reform package, without the usual consultation with the House Republican leadership. The reforms will likely represent the starting point of ongoing negotiations between the House and Senate — in the shadow of a possible presidential veto.
As of this writing, the House “Justice in Policing Act” includes:
- Bans on discriminatory profiling based on race or religion.
- Requiring training for all law enforcement on profiling.
- Requiring federal uniformed police officers to wear body cameras and states to use existing federal grants to ensure the use of police body cameras.
- Requiring marked federal police vehicles to have dashboard cameras;
- Allowing use of deadly force only as a last resort, after officers have applied de-escalation techniques.
- Banning the use of chokeholds and no-knock warrants at the federal level and encouraging states to do the same;
- Creating a nationwide police misconduct registry so officers fired for misconduct can’t easily shift to another department.
“The protection and equitable treatment of all Americans is not a partisan issue,” said O’Halleran. “We have reached a turning point as a nation and no elected official of any political party, at any level of government, can ignore the calls for change sweeping our communities. I am committed to continuing to hear from the citizens of Arizona’s First District and to working with the Congressional Black Caucus to see what is needed next.”
Gosar said some of the changes may prove redundant.
“It is already illegal for law enforcement to engage in discriminatory profiling and virtually all officers are trained in this already. In addition, lethal force is already mandated to be the last resort. Lethal force is warranted only in defense of life, yourself or another’s. That is what makes the Floyd case so distressing. There is no legitimate reason to pin a suspect in this manner and the result here, charges for murder, are what should have occurred.”
The House reform packages falls far short of calls to “defund police,” made by some demonstrators and already embraced by a majority of the Minneapolis City Council. The phrase refers to calls to demilitarize police forces and use some of the money spent on policing on other approaches, like interventions by mental health counselors, bolstering social services and dramatic changes in police training.
The Justice in Policing Act includes two controversial police practices at the root of recent, widely protested incidents.
That includes a ban on chokeholds, which would include the technique of kneeling on a suspect’s neck to immobilize them that apparently led to Floyd’s death.
The second involves a ban on “no knock” warrants, which would prevent police from breaking into a home to serve a warrant or investigate a crime. Three plainclothes detectives killed Louisville paramedic Breonna Taylor on March 13 after breaking down her front door under the authority of a no-knock warrant. Her boyfriend grabbed a bedside gun and Taylor was killed and her boyfriend wounded in the exchange of fire with police. The case remains under investigation.
One major chokepoint when it comes to House and Senate agreement remains the proposed modification of “qualified immunity,” which has made it very difficult to prosecute police misconduct cases.
Qualified immunity protects police officers from being held personally liable if their actions do not violate a “clearly established” law. The concept has emerged from a handful of U.S. Supreme Court cases, with eight cases involving the concept currently under Supreme Court review.
The legal doctrine emerged to protect police officers from frivolous lawsuits. However, in hundreds of uses of the doctrine, the concept has resulted in many acquittals if prosecutors can’t show the officer’s behavior was almost identical to a previous case involving a conviction.
Critics say the doctrine has been used to defeat claims against officers for things like stealing expensive jewelry during a search, violating First Amendment rights and failing to provide adequate medical care. In one case, the doctrine resulted in the dismissal of a case in which police sicced a dog on a suspect who was severely mauled although he was sitting on the ground with his hands up.
Democrats have called for redefining the concept, but so far Republicans have balked.