Congressional Black Caucus chair rejects call to defund police, but pushes for June vote on reforms

The chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus rejected growing demands from activists for a national defunding of police departments but said the House is forging ahead with passing police reforms as soon as this month.

In a video press conference Wednesday, Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., said she personally doesn't favor the #DefundthePolice movement that Black Lives Matter activists and protesters across the country have been pushing as a way to end brutality in the wake of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis.

"No, I don't believe that we should defund police departments," said Bass, noting that she was "not familiar" with that demand from Black Lives Matter and would further consult with them.

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Bass on Wednesday joined with the leaders of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Congressional Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus and members of the Congressional Native American Caucus to call for legislation to condemn police brutality and reform police departments. Leaders predicted a package of reform bills could pass later this June.

"All of us consider this legislation must-pass legislation," said Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Activists calling to defund police departments want resources diverted to helping black people thrive, such as investments in education, health care and other community services.

The #DefundThePolice petition has gotten the support of celebrities, including singer John Legend.

But the progressive movement doesn't appear to be gaining traction in the House. Instead of zeroing out police department budgets, lawmakers are focused on police reforms. The proposals are still being developed, but Bass outlined the broad themes of the "comprehensive" legislation: holding police accountable, identifying bad cops and training officers.

"The most important is holding police accountable because right now it is difficult to sue, you can very rarely fire and you can almost never prosecute," Bass said. "So we need to deal with the laws that make it so difficult to hold police accountable."

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Bass said the legislation would aim to prevent a scenario of unfit cops being on the job and passed from one department to another, citing the case of Cleveland Police Officer Timothy Loehmann who fatally shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014. Loehmann was hired by Cleveland police even though he was allowed to resign instead of being fired from his previous suburban job that found him unfit for duty.

"We need to have a national database," Bass said. "We need to know where the bad apples are."

She added: "Clearly there needs to be better training. So I see it being a comprehensive bill and I see it being voted on before July.”

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The House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on the police reforms next week, Bass said, which will jumpstart the House's legislative response. Details of the forthcoming committee hearing have not yet been released.

The package of bills is being developed with the Congressional Black Caucus and Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J.,  and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., in the Senate.

Details are still the works, but specific legislation that lawmakers have touted in recent days includes Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries' bill to ban chokeholds by police, a bill he first introduced in the wake of the death of Eric Garner in New York City in 2014, who called out "I can't breathe" when an officer used a chokehold to arrest him.

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The Democrats also backed legislation authored by Reps. Bass, Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Barbara Lee, D-Calif., to condemn police brutality, racial profiling and the excessive use of force.

Another bill gaining traction is one to form a new commission to examine the effects of slavery, institutional racism and discrimination against people of color, and how that history impacts policies today.

Unlike past efforts to pass police reform bills, lawmakers say Floyd's case is different because the video of his death horrified Americans across the country and prompted tens of thousands of people to protest in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic to demand action.

"People are saying: 'Enough is enough,'" said Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. "They have seen this whole string of murders that have occurred, and nothing has been done. So we need to get this legislation passed. They have to see that we are doing something."