Cleaver said serving in Congress requires a certain level of courage to vote for legislation that may be controversial. He said in the past, lawmakers from both parties have shied away from addressing systemic issues with policing but he believes this moment is different.
The Missouri Democrat, a former mayor of Kansas City, Mo., said the response to the killing of George Floyd gives Congress an opportunity to create uniform standards that help mayors and local leaders by giving them guidelines for conduct. He said federal laws can also provide political backup for local leaders when they meet resistance.
"I think that the federal government must express itself," Cleaver said. "Local communities all around the country who might be reticent about doing things that they believe would be helpful can say, 'Hey, that's the law.'"
Debate About Calls to 'Defund the Police'
The legislation does not address the growing movement among some protesters calling to defund police departments. California Rep. Karen Bass, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, told reporters that the legislation aims instead to overhaul how policing is conducted.
"We feel it is transformative, that it will transform the relationships that our communities have with the police," Bass said.
Democrats at Monday's press conference largely avoided addressing the concept of defunding the police or their support for that demand.
Congressional Republicans and their campaign operations have already begun attacking Democrats over the demand to defund the police. Outside groups and the official campaign organizations for House and Senate Republicans have begun linking rank-and-file Democrats to the defund movement. President Trump has also weighed in. Democrats, like Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., dismissed the tactic as a "predictable and hurtful" way to undermine the legislation.
"The same way there have been efforts to undermine the Black Lives Matter movement and to co-opt the narrative of what is actually happening throughout our glow in this moment, that commentary is certainly not surprising," Pressley said in an interview with NPR. "Those efforts are always underway; we will not allow that narrative to persist and to obstruct the work that we need to do as a legislative body."
Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, released a statement on Monday saying he opposes defunding the police. He said he is supporting policies that would increase resources for programs outside of police departments to address societal issues "so that officers can focus on the job of policing," as well as providing funding for body cameras and other measures inside police departments.
Higher Standards for Police
Bass said while she couldn't confirm any Republicans are on board with the proposal yet, she's holding out hope.
She also noted that a wave of videos documenting new cases of police brutality at protests could provide new momentum for legislation.
"The world is watching the birth of a new movement in our country," Bass said Monday.
The bill's authors say it addresses concerns of steep requirements to pursue penalties against police misconduct. It reforms qualified immunity for police officers, or their legal protection shield for certain actions, to allow individuals to recover damages when their constitutional rights are violated.
And it lowers the "mens rea" standard in the U.S. code to a finding of an officer's recklessness.
"The current mens rea standard of 'willfulness' has made it extremely difficult to prosecute law enforcement officers," the bill's sponsors told their colleagues.
Among the bill's other efforts:
- It creates a National Police Misconduct Registry to track police misconduct and thwart officers from switching jurisdictions to avoid accountability. The plan also looks to improve police practices by mandating training on racial bias and the duty to intervene.
- It also limits the transfer of military-grade weapons to state and local law enforcement agencies and requires the use of body cameras.
- The legislation would also empower attorneys general and the Justice Department to play a much larger role in its oversight of police agencies. For example, it would create a grant program to allow attorneys general to independently investigate police misconduct and excessive use of force. And it would give the Justice Department greater powers to investigate and track cases.
- It would also condition federal funding for state and local police agencies to their training and adoption of policies to combat racial bias and profiling, as well as ban "no-knock" warrants in drug-related cases and the use of choke-holds.
- It also makes lynching a federal crime, a revival of legislation already approved in the House and currently stalled in the Senate following failed attempts to pass it.
The House could take up the measure when it is due to return June 30. However, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters last week that lawmakers could return sooner to approve the plan.
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.org