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Senate Judiciary Committee Takes Up Calls For Police Reform

NOEL KING, HOST:

OK. So that's what the president is up to. How about Congress, which is also feeling some pressure here? House Democrats have made public their proposal for police reform, and congressional Republicans plan to release details of theirs tomorrow. Today the Republican-led Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on policing. Nearly a dozen witnesses from civil rights and law enforcement backgrounds will testify.

Delaware Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat, is a member of that committee. He's with me now. Good morning, Senator.

CHRIS COONS: Good morning, Noel. Great to be on with you.

KING: Great to have you. Some members of the Senate and the House have been working on their own reforms. You heard Franco talk about the president's executive order moving forward with that. Does that affect what Congress is doing?

COONS: Well, to the extent that it shows any willingness on the part of President Trump to consider some of the proposals in Congress, that's a positive step. My concern is that there will remain a very large gap between the Justice in Policing Act, which most Democrats have co-sponsored in the Senate and many in the House, and whatever may be introduced in the Senate by Senator Tim Scott and other Republicans. The executive order seems to take a stand that we need policing reform and that we need to take a few steps around national certification and credentialing and a federal database of officers accused of excessive use of force. But it doesn't do anything around the - I think - tougher, stronger, necessary steps that are critical to the Justice in Policing Act.

Two things that we have already tried to pass - a bill to make lynching a federal hate crime and to end racial profiling are key parts of that bill, but so, too, are new tools to help the Department of Justice investigate systemic police conduct through their Civil Rights Division and the ability of prosecutors to bring federal charges against police officers who criminally violate Americans' constitutional rights. So there may well be a gap. But you know, I think today's hearing is a great first step. I'm encouraged that the Judiciary Committee is going to have nearly a dozen witnesses that are strongly and broadly representative of the civil rights community and of policing groups.

KING: Let's talk about one of those sticking points that you mentioned. Democrats say they want to end qualified immunity, which protects police from lawsuits. But here's Republican Senator Tim Scott on "Meet The Press" on Sunday. Take a listen to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

TIM SCOTT: From the Republican perspective - and the president sent the signal that qualified immunity is off the table.

KING: Are you and other Democrats open to negotiating on that?

COONS: Well, that's the point of today's hearing is for us to begin to identify, what are the contours of this issue. Qualified immunity is actually a very complex legal standard. The Supreme Court actually just declined to hear another case on qualified immunity.

KING: Yeah.

COONS: It is what's called a judge-made doctrine. And I think it's a - it's a thicket. It is not as simple as just saying we will or we will not completely eliminate it. There are ways to make progress in this field. But today's hearing is the best way to start that conversation.

KING: What are some things that you're willing to negotiate on? Where do you see avenues of potential compromise here?

COONS: Well, I think there is agreement that we need to have a national registry, for example, of decertified officers to make it much more difficult for them to change jurisdictions, for an officer to be essentially drummed out of the force for misconduct in one state and then cross state lines and get hired in another. I think there's agreement on that. I think there's agreement on banning chokeholds - I hope. We'll have to see. I think there's agreement on mandating the universal use of body cameras. That's something police in my own home state have said they would welcome.

But I think there will be some sharp disagreements over things like qualified immunity and empowering federal prosecutors to bring federal civil rights charges. I hope we can get past the block that we found last week where one Republican senator, Rand Paul, objected to the anti-lynching bill. I think that is a long-sought objective of those of us who think we need reform in terms of protection of civil rights and civil liberties and policing reforms. Ending racial profiling and lynching strikes me as the sort of thing that if we can't make progress on that, then I don't see there's real progress to do more.

KING: Just quickly, you heard my colleague Franco say President Trump's executive order likely not to take on police unions. Do police unions need to be took on? In the seconds we have left, please.

COONS: Police unions play an important role in representing law enforcement officers, but they've also been critical barriers to progress in some areas. They have to be engaged with if we're going to make real progress in policing reform.

KING: Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware. Thank you, Senator, for your time.

COONS: Thank you, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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