As the nationwide uprising catalyzed by the police killing of George Floyd continues to bring hundreds of thousands of Americans into city streets around the U.S., Sen. Bernie Sanders is urging the Democratic leadership to embrace a slate of specific policy proposals aimed at mitigating the intertwined crises of systemic racism and unaccountable brutality by law enforcement.
"I am calling for sweeping policy reforms to protect people — particularly communities of color — who have suffered violence for far too long," the Vermont senator wrote in a letter (pdf) to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Wednesday.
Sanders' letter outlines eight policy proposals that the senator says would, if implemented, "contribute greatly to the eradication of police violence in this country."
- Amend federal civil rights laws to allow more effective prosecution of police misconduct by changing the standard from willfulness to recklessness;
- Abolish "qualified immunity," so police officers can be held civilly liable for abuses;
- Prohibit the transfer of offensive military equipment to police departments;
- Strip federal funds from departments that violate civil rights;
- Create a federal model policing program that emphasizes de-escalation, non-lethal force and culturally competent policing in which access to federal funds depends upon the level of reform adopted. As part of this effort to modernize and humanize police departments we need to enhance the recruitment pool by ensuring that the resources are available to pay wages that will attract the top-tier officers we need to do the difficult work of policing;
- Provide funding to states and municipalities to create civilian corps of unarmed first responders to supplement law enforcement, such as social workers, EMTs, and trained mental health professionals, who can handle order maintenance violations, mental health emergencies, and low-level conflicts to aid police officers;
- Require agencies to make records of police misconduct publicly available;
- Require all jurisdictions that receive federal grant funding to establish independent police conduct review boards that are broadly representative of the community and that have the authority to refer deaths that occur at the hands of police or in police custody to federal authorities for investigation. In addition, the boards would be authorized to report to federal authorities other types of abuses by police including patterns of misconduct. This would be supplemental to current federal authority to commence investigations. Clearly we need to enhance federal funding for such investigations.
"We have got to act boldly to eradicate systemic racism and police violence," Sanders tweeted.
Sanders' proposals come as House and Senate Democrats are beginning to lay the groundwork for a legislative response to Floyd's killing, which sparked mass demonstrations against police brutality and racism across the U.S. and around the world.
"House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has asked the Congressional Black Caucus to lead the process of drafting a legislative response to the protests that have swept the country following the death of George Floyd," NPR reported Tuesday. "House Democrats are sorting through dozens of proposals to address policing issues, including excessive use of force and racial profiling."
While some critics took issue with elements of Sanders' proposed solutions—particularly the call to raise the pay of police officers — other policies in the platform have been embraced by national civil rights groups.
In a letter to congressional leaders of both parties on Monday, more than 400 civil rights organizations expressed support for a ban on the transfer of excess U.S. military equipment to local police departments and abolition of a longstanding legal doctrine giving police sweeping immunity from lawsuits, both of which Sanders embraced.
"Federal statutory reforms are urgently needed on a range of policing issues, including use of force, police accountability, racial profiling, militarization, data collection, and training," the groups wrote. "These recent police killings of residents across the country are part of a longer history of fatal police killings against black people in America and require congressional action immediately."