How we can police our communities better

Published 12:15 am Wednesday, July 1, 2020

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John Cornyn- R (TX)

(Editor’s note: This previously published in the Dallas Morning News on June 29, 2020)

The killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis was a brutal, senseless and avoidable tragedy, and one our country has witnessed countless times before. In many ways, his death was the match that ignited nationwide conversations about the racial injustices that have existed in our country for generations. These systemic problems have led to inequalities in everything from education, to health care, to housing, and while each of these must be addressed, the most important place to start is with police reforms.

In a recent poll conducted by The Washington Post and George Mason University, nearly 70% of Americans agreed that Floyd’s death was a sign of broader problems in the treatment of Black Americans by police. While there’s widespread agreement that change is needed, there’s no consensus on what that change should look like. In order to get there, it’s important to listen and learn from a variety of voices.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve teamed up with the mayors of both Dallas and Houston to host roundtable discussions with law enforcement, faith and community leaders. During our conversation in Dallas, Sheriff Marian Brown said, “We have to reach a point where we are comfortable having uncomfortable conversations.” Whether in Congress, workplaces or homes, these discussions aren’t easy, and for too long the topic has been avoided altogether. But progress can only happen if we’re having these important conversations and following up with action.

Reforms at the state and local levels will be the biggest drivers of change. This is where decisions are made about hiring, data sharing and day-to-day police activities. By and large, that’s a good thing — a one-size-fits-all rulebook would create more problems than solutions. But there are basic practices that should be standard across the board, and Congress has a responsibility to ensure all police departments are transparent, accountable and well-trained.

In the Senate, I’ve worked closely with Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., in developing the Just and Unifying Solutions to Invigorate Communities Everywhere Act to reform, retrain and restore trust in America’s police officers. This legislation helps end chokeholds and addresses no-knock warrants, two practices which — for good reason — have been brought into question by recent events. It ensures our officers receive critical de-escalation trainings, properly use body cameras, report critical data and are held accountable for mistakes. This legislation also improves minority hiring in police forces, orders a top-to-bottom review of our criminal justice system, and makes lynching a federal crime.

It takes a number of steps to deliver both immediate and lasting changes in communities across the country, and last week, the Senate took a routine procedural vote to begin working on this bill. Those voting yes – as I did – agreed to start the process of discussing, debating and amending this police reform bill. This wasn’t a vote to pass the bill, or preclude any changes, just a simple, straightforward step to get the process moving.

Unfortunately, Democrats blocked the bill. They prevented the Senate from even debating this legislation by claiming it was “inadequate.” They refused to negotiate, offer amendments, or try to engage in any meaningful or productive way. When given the opportunity to follow their calls for action with actual progress, they chose to simply vote “no.”

It was a disappointing show of priorities and a tremendous loss for our country, which is hungry for reform. Despite this setback, however, I will continue to press forward and encourage my colleagues to pass the sensible reforms we all agree are necessary.

During a roundtable discussion in Dallas a few weeks ago, Police Chief Renée Hall discussed how policing strategies over the years have created a wedge between law enforcement and their communities, and we’re going to have to work to fix it.

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I’m confident that stonewalling the Senate will not lead to progress. Every person — regardless of skin color, political party, age or background — must be willing to do the work. This uncomfortable national conversation is long overdue, and it’s time we seize this opportunity to create real reforms. Instead of accepting “no,” it’s time to demand, “yes.”

Senator John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, is a member of the Senate Finance, Judiciary, and Intelligence Committees.