Republicans claim police reform needed – to prevent another ‘Russia hoax’

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A House Judiciary Committee markup on the Justice in Policing Act, drafted to reform law enforcement after George Floyd's death in police custody, showed that Democrats and Republicans are in agreement that measures are needed to increase officer accountability -- but not necessarily for all the same reasons.

While both parties recognized that racial disparities in the country must be dealt with, a number of Republicans used Wednesday's session to also press for a requirement that federal officials record all interviews -- citing cases related to the Trump-Russia investigation.

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“In the Michael Flynn case, there were two different 302s that were filed,” said Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., referring to the FBI documents pertaining to the interview of former national security adviser Michael Flynn. “And the first one was filed three and a half weeks after the interview, which is absolutely ridiculous in and of itself. Can you recall a conversation you had three and a half weeks earlier, regardless of what you were doing?” Armstrong noted that the other 302 came months later.

“That shouldn’t have happened, those interviews should have been recorded.”

Flynn claims that the FBI engaged in foul play when agents interviewed him, and FBI notes revealed that agents had questioned whether their goal was to find the truth or to get him to lie so he could face prosecution or termination. The Justice Department recently moved to dismiss the case, but the judge has not yet decided whether to allow it.

Armstrong proposed an amendment to the bill that would require Justice Department law enforcement to maintain audio recordings of interviews they conduct, whether the subjects are in custody or not. He pointed out that part of the current bill requires uniformed law enforcement officers to have body cameras and dash cameras, but that the cameras are not required to be turned on during interviews once a person has been taken into custody, or for any recording to exist for those interviews.

“It is time that our premier law enforcement agencies get into the 21st century,” Armstrong said.

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Armstrong went on to discuss Paul Manafort’s case, saying, “We don’t know what happened in the 12 interviews that they conducted with Paul Manafort because there’s not a transcript of any of them,” adding, “that isn’t done by accident, that isn’t done out of convenience, that is done intentionally.”

Armstrong said that recordings would protect both officers and defendants, and help restore public trust in law enforcement.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., supported Armstrong’s amendment and made a similar argument.

“I believe that the legislation on body cameras is very productive, but if we can move policing into the 21st century on body cameras, can we at least move the federal government entities that we control into the 20th century?” he asked. “Can we at least ensure that we don’t have another circumstance like the Russia hoax where, as a consequence of federal agents who had well exceeded their authority as law enforcement officers when they became political actors, when they wanted to deprive the people of this country of the duly elected president, when they took interviews and then characterized them falsely, politically, we didn’t have recordings to go back to in all of those circumstances.”

Gaetz then said that “if these things can happen to General Flynn, if they can happen to people working on a presidential campaign, I can only imagine the number of times where the FBI might have had someone in an interview and the lack of a recording allowed the government to deprive people of their rights, to characterize things inaccurately.”

Ranking member Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said Gaetz was “right on target” with what he said.

“Cops wear body cams but the FBI agent interviewing a three-star general doesn’t have to record that conversation? That makes no sense,” Jordan said.

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Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, not losing sight of what led to the bill, noted that racism “is still there” in law enforcement, but said, “allowing the FBI to simply write down their version of what is said by a witness instead of doing what every cop on the street knows needs to be done and that’s a recording of what was said, the FBI is going to be able – either by faulty memory or by intent – [to] sway the manner in which a witness’s statement is portrayed.”