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Why police are calling out Republicans for torpedoing this Democratic bill

Even police are calling out the GOP's bad-faith sabotage of the Democrats' criminal justice reform.
Photo illustration: Hands holding up a sign that reads,\"Defund Police\" with a scribble over it and Sen. Tim Scott.
Sen. Tim Scott has falsely described a key provision of the Democrats' police reform bill as defunding the police, even though he once supported it himself. MSNBC / Getty Images; AP

Republicans torpedoed efforts by Democrats to pass criminal justice reform legislation last week, despite the fact that Democrats made huge concessions to get them on board. One sign of how unreasonable the Republican position on the bill was: They’re being called out by the police — the very group Republicans claimed to be defending in negotiations — for their bad-faith handling of the legislation.

The whole episode is driving home how Republicans have no serious interest in making policing safer.

Two of the biggest organizations representing the police in America, the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the National Fraternal Order of Police, released a joint statement Tuesday slamming the GOP without naming them:

Despite some media reports, at no point did any legislative draft propose ‘defunding the police.’ In fact, the legislation specifically provided additional funding to assist law enforcement agencies in training, agency accreditation, and data collection initiatives. It is our joint belief that the provisions under discussion would have strengthened the law enforcement profession and helped improve the state of community police engagement without compromising management and officers’ rights, authorities, and legal protections.

While the statement takes issue with the claims in “media reports,” this is really a shot at Senate Republicans, led by Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who stonewalled the bill on the basis that it allegedly defunded the police. The problem with that line of reasoning was that it was not only false, but that Scott in fact once backed the very idea that he was referring to as “defunding.” The whole episode is driving home how Republicans have no serious interest in making policing safer, despite how congenial they sounded about moderate police reform in the wake of the murder of George Floyd last year.

Police organizations like the Fraternal Order of Police — which endorsed Donald Trump in the presidential elections in 2016 and 2020 — tend to have right-wing politics and be fiercely protective of policies that prevent law enforcement officers from being held accountable for their misuse of power. In the run-up to the police reform bill that just fell apart, the Fraternal Order of Police lobbied against a provision that would end qualified immunity, a policy that shields police officers and other public officials from civil lawsuits.

Republicans excel at registering complaints, but they have no real interest in governance or reform.

They got what they wanted. The lead Democratic negotiators for the bill, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., dropped qualified immunity from the bill, which was the marquee policy for the bill for criminal justice reform advocates and progressives. They also dropped Section 242 of the Civil Rights Act, which would have resulted in officers facing expanded civil or criminal accountability.

But Scott still objected to the legislation on the basis that one of the policies, which ties federal grant funding to police departments’ compliance with policies like chokehold bans and the elimination of “no-knock” warrants, amounted to “defunding the police.” Not only is this kind of regulatory setup common across other federal grant programs, it’s also not by any reasonable definition defunding the police — a policy paradigm that calls for slashing police budgets in order to invest in alternatives to conventional law enforcement.

But what made Scott’s objection appalling was that he himself called for this idea, in 2020, as Jonathan Chait at New York magazine recently pointed out. Here’s Scott discussing criminal justice reform with PBS in June 2020:

Judy Woodruff: Well, Senator, as you know, Democrats are calling for an outright ban on certain measures, like a choke hold or the so-called no-knock warrant.Sen. Tim Scott: Yes.Judy Woodruff: In your proposal, you are saying these things should be tied to federal funding, that, if departments go ahead with them, they risk losing funding.Sen. Tim Scott: Yes.

Last year, Scott saw making federal funding conditional as a promising reform mechanism. This year, he decided it's a policy out of the police abolition playbook.

What explains Scott’s flip on the policy, even after police organizations saw an opening to lock down a defanged reform bill? As on so many other policy fronts, Republicans excel at registering complaints, but they have no real interest in governance or reform. And they value a reputation for unconditional support for American policing — no matter how harmful it may be to large swaths of the public — over any reputation for being good-faith lawmakers.