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Senate GOP proposes policing changes in ‘Justice Act’

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., right, accompanied by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., left, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, center, and others, speaks at a news conference to announce a Republican police reform bill on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, June 17, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., right, accompanied by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., left, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, center, and others, speaks at a news conference to announce a Republican police reform bill on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, June 17, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

WASHINGTON – Senate Republicans unveiled proposed changes to police procedures and accountability Wednesday, countering Democrats' far-reaching overhaul with a more modest package but one that underscores how swiftly the national debate on race has been transformed five months before elections.

The White House signaled President Donald Trump's support as Republicans embraced a new priority with the “Justice Act,” the most ambitious GOP policing proposal in years in response to the massive public protests over the death of George Floyd and other black Americans.

Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell promised speedy action next week, when the House will also be voting on the Democratic plan. That puts the two bills on a collision course, but the momentum of suddenly shifting American attitudes is driving both. Half of adults now say police violence is a serious problem, according to an Associated Press-NORC poll.

“We hear you,” said Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina at a press conference with GOP colleagues at the Capitol. The only black Republican senator, he had asked leadership for a say in the bill and was tapped to craft it.

The outlook is extremely fluid, as both parties see a need to meet the moment after graphic cellphone videos and a public outcry over police killings sparked a worldwide movement against racism and police violence.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi criticized the GOP package as “inadequate.” But she also said House Democrats “hope to work in a bipartisan way to pass legislation that creates meaningful change to end the epidemic of racial injustice and police brutality in America.”

In the Senate, McConnell is pushing the Republican bill ahead of other priorities, all but daring less-than-satisfied Democrats to block the debate.

"We are serious about making a law,” said the GOP leader, whose home state of Kentucky has faced unrest over the officer-involved killing of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor.

The two parties' bills take similar but far-from-identical approaches to the core issues of police accountability and procedures as Congress delves into the problem of excessive use of force and the treatment of people of color.

Central to both packages is a beefed-up database on use-of-force incidents, so officers' records can be tracked even when they transfer from one department to another. It's also a priority for Trump, who signed an executive order this week on a similar plan.

The GOP legislation would increase requirements for law enforcement to compile use-of-force reports under a new George Floyd and Walter Scott Notification Act, named for the Minnesota man whose May 25 death sparked worldwide protests over police violence, and Scott, a South Carolina man shot by police after a traffic stop in 2015. Scott is not related to the senator.

It would also establish the Breonna Taylor Notification Act to track “no-knock” warrants, named for the Louisville woman who was killed when police used a no-knock warrant to enter her home.

The Democratic bill would go further by changing the federal statute governing police misconduct to include officers engaging in “reckless” actions.

Both bills would seek to change police procedures — doing away with chokeholds, which are already banned by many departments, or mandating the use of body cameras — and bolster training to prevent officers from engaging in excessive force or racial profiling.

While the Republican package simply encourages many of the changes in policing tactics, by either taking away funds if departments fail to comply or providing funds to implement changes, the Democratic bill often would make the changes mandatory.

The GOP package also establishes a “duty to intervene” protocol in response to Floyd's death. Other officers stood by as Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into the man's neck.

Scott said he himself had been stopped by police more than 18 times — including once this year for a failure to signal long enough before a turn — and urged colleagues to understand it’s “not a binary choice” between supporting law enforcement or people of color.

Since first proposing changes five years ago, he said, the mood of the country has shifted.

“America is fed up with this situation,” Scott said in an interview. “It’s no longer African Americans, the black community, that’s out there protesting. ... The picture that we see today is, America says enough is enough.”

But Democrats roundly criticized the Republican legislation, with Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer saying it “does not rise to the moment” and would provide less accountability than the House Democrats’ version. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler called the GOP bill a “sham.” Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus who led the Democratic effort, said the GOP approach "definitely mimics parts of ours but without the teeth."

One key area of disagreement is over ending “qualified immunity” for officers to make it easier for those injured by police to seek damages in lawsuits. The Democratic bill includes the provision, but the White House has said it is a line too far that Trump will not support.

As Senate Republicans released their 106-page legislation, the House Judiciary Committee was considering the much broader Democratic proposal before an expected House vote next week. The panel approved the bill late Wednesday on a 24-14 party line vote.

Despite the differences, the GOP effort seeks to reach across the aisle to Democrats in several ways. It includes one long-sought bill to make lynching a federal hate crime and another to launch a study of the social status of black men and boys that has been touted by Pelosi.

The Republican package — dubbed the “Just and Unifying Solutions To Invigorate Communities Everywhere Act of 2020” — also includes a bipartisan Senate proposal to establish a National Criminal Justice Commission Act and extends funding streams for various federal law enforcement programs, including the COPS program important to states.

The package includes a mix of other proposals, including tapping the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture to create a law enforcement training curriculum on “the history of racism in the United States.” Another closes a loophole to prohibit federal law enforcement officers from engaging in sexual acts with those being arrested or in custody.

Expenditures for the bill would be considered on an emergency basis, so as not to count against federal deficits.

The rush of activity in Washington has been stunning since Floyd's death.

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Trump “is fully in support of” the GOP bill.

At a Rose Garden event this week on his executive actions, Trump declared himself “committed to working with Congress on additional measures.”

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Associated Press writers Kevin Freking, Jim Mustian, Colleen Long and Padmananda Rama and video journalist Hilary Powell contributed to this report.