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Congressional Democrat Says The Time Is Now For Federal Police Reform


Nearly every prominent elected official who has spoken about the Derek Chauvin guilty verdict has used words of beginning. President Biden called it a chance to change the trajectory in this country.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Nothing can ever bring their brother, their father, back. But this can be a giant step forward in the march toward justice in America.

SHAPIRO: And Vice President Kamala Harris used similar language.


VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: This verdict brings us a step closer. And the fact is, we still have work to do. We still must reform the system.

SHAPIRO: So what do those next steps look like? Well, for many Democrats, it is a police reform bill called the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. The House of Representatives passed it last month, and it's now pending in the Senate. Democratic Congresswoman Karen Bass of California introduced the legislation, and she joins us now.


KAREN BASS: Thank you. Thanks for having me on.

SHAPIRO: Just to give listeners a sense, this is a bill that would do many things, including a ban on chokeholds and no-knock warrants. It would outlaw racial and religious profiling by law enforcement, end qualified immunity, require better data collection from police. Do you think yesterday's guilty verdict changes the future of this bill in the Senate?

BASS: Well, I certainly hope it does. I certainly hope that it serves as a positive catalyst to get us across the finish line. We've been talking about this now for almost a year. Now is the time for us to act and to put a bill on President Biden's desk.

SHAPIRO: Explain that calculus. Because some have expressed concern that Chauvin's conviction will have the opposite effect, that a guilty verdict allows lawmakers who might be on the fence to say, justice was served. This bad cop was punished for his actions. No broader action is necessary. How do you respond to that?

BASS: Just yesterday, an hour before the verdict, a child - and, in my mind, a teenager is a child - was shot four times in her chest. She was a foster child. She had called 911 for help. She was in a fight. She was defending herself. She had a knife. The police officers couldn't figure out anything to do other than to shoot her four times in the chest? Tomorrow will be the funeral for Daunte Wright. He was shot with a police officer who had been on the force 26 years. She didn't know the difference between her taser and her gun? This issue is not resolved.

SHAPIRO: So let's talk about what it would take to get this through the Senate. I know you have been working with Senator Tim Scott, Republican of South Carolina. Democrats have 50 votes in the Senate. You would need to get 10 Republicans on board. When those Republicans say to you, here's why I can't vote for the bill, if it didn't have this, I might be able to get behind it, what do they point to? What's the holdup?

BASS: Well, I have only been talking to Tim Scott. I cannot tell you what other Republican senators say. I can tell you that my Republican colleagues in the House - they are concerned about many different issues. They're concerned about the way police departments and police officers are demoralized around the country. Some are retiring earlier. Some are not able to really hire and fill their classes. One of the things I say to them is that until policing is transformed in the United States, don't be surprised if police continue to have a reputation that becomes worse and worse every time one of these incidents is happening.

SHAPIRO: Getting 10 Republican votes for anything under a Democratic administration is a very tall order. How confident are you that this could actually be done?

BASS: Well, I don't say that I am overconfident. I will tell you that I am very hopeful, and I'm hopeful because I'm working with Senator Scott, and Senator Scott has received the blessing of his caucus. I believe that if he is supportive of the bill, that we will be able to round up the Republican senators that we need.

SHAPIRO: You talk about reforming policing in the United States, but, as you know, policing happens at the local level in thousands of different departments. Is it really possible for one federal law to make sweeping change across those thousands of different jurisdictions?

BASS: No. And, in fact, there are 18,000 police departments in the United States, and we can pass all the laws we want to on a federal level. As you said, policing is a local issue. However, on the federal side, we have tremendous leverage because there are federal funds attached to many of those 18,000 police departments. And then one of the things that we have found is that when you have initiatives on the federal level and when you have hundreds of thousands of people out in the street protesting peacefully, I might emphasize, that produces change on a local level.

So just since we introduced a George Floyd Justice in Policing Act last year, you have seen departments, states, cities change all over the country. And so we think what happens at the federal level helps to push change on a state and local level as well.

SHAPIRO: One of the big sticking points in this debate seems to be accountability and what punishment looks like. And it sounds like what you're saying is, this bill addresses accountability in part by saying, if you don't follow these rules, you won't get federal funding. Is that the model here?

BASS: Well, no. When I'm talking about accountability, I'm talking about accountability to the individual police officers. So take Derek Chauvin, for example. While he was torturing George Floyd to death, he was looking at the cellphone. He knew he was being filmed. He didn't seem to care. He even had his hand in his pocket. He was acting with complete impunity. So we want to raise the standard of policing, just like you would raise the standards of any other profession.

SHAPIRO: At this point, people are so familiar with the details of how Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd. Is there anything you can point to in that encounter that would have gone differently if this bill had been law?

BASS: Well, yeah, I think there's a couple of things. I don't think he would have been so emboldened that he would have just kept his knee on his neck for that length of time. I think the officer would have thought twice. I think he would have recognized that he could have been prosecuted and incarcerated.

I don't think if Derek Chauvin thought for one minute that he'd be going to jail for the rest of his life, that he would have kept that knee there for nine minutes. He tortured him to death. We need to think of it that way because that's exactly what happened, and the whole world saw it.

SHAPIRO: Democratic Congresswoman Karen Bass of California, thank you very much.

BASS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.