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Senate Judiciary Committee Holds A Hearing On Police Reform

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly in Washington, where the Senate Judiciary Committee has held its first hearing on policing since the killing of George Floyd. Committee chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina made clear his goal is to address racial injustice in policing.

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LINDSEY GRAHAM: Every black man in America - virtually every black man in America feels like if they get stopped by the cop, it's a traumatic experience.

KELLY: The hearing comes as another Republican, Tim Scott of South Carolina, prepares to release a GOP reform bill tomorrow. Now, Republicans and Democrats seem to agree there are problems with policing in America, but can they agree on what those problems are and how to fix them? NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell is following that for us. She's here now.

Hey, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi there.

KELLY: Hi. Set the table for us. What changes are senators seriously considering right now?

SNELL: Well, to kind of give us a little context of where we are in the discussion, this hearing today was billed by Chairman Graham as - intended to shed light on the issues of policing and find common ground. He is working - as part of a working group set up by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on policing. Graham said it's time to create a system to combat a system that isn't working. He says that there is fear. We heard him talking there, and he brought it up repeatedly that there is fear among black Americans when dealing with the police.

But one of the more interesting moments came when Graham raised the issue of qualified immunity. That is that protection that has been used to shield police from lawsuits. It's one of the most controversial measures that's being discussed in Congress. And this is what he said.

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GRAHAM: The one thing I can tell you - that if you're subject to being sued, you act differently than if you're not. And we don't want to deter people from going into law enforcement, but we also want to have a sense of accountability. And to the extent that qualified immunity fosters a sense of, it's really not my problem - let's take a look at it.

SNELL: So what we heard there is him opening the door to considering changes to qualified immunity, which is very different than what we're hearing from most other Republicans, including Tim Scott, who have wanted - who have called the issue of qualified immunity a poison pill. Democrats, we should say, want to get rid of it entirely.

KELLY: Yeah. Now, meanwhile, President Trump is also working on this. He signed his own executive order today. The intention of that is being billed as promoting accountability in law enforcement. How is that being received on Capitol Hill?

SNELL: As you'd imagine, Republicans are welcoming it. They are - they're glad to see the president taking that action. But lawmakers want to go further. You know, the executive order sets up a database to track officers who have had a record of using excess force.

KELLY: Excessive force, yes.

SNELL: Yes (laughter). Republicans say their bill will do more, that they would ban chokeholds and create a duty for other officers who see excessive force to intervene. And there will be funding for body-worn cameras. And they say they would also create a system where police are paid for meeting performance standards. But the details of that are still incomplete, though we do expect to see a bill tomorrow. But as I understand, things are still coming together.

KELLY: And the bill tomorrow is the Republican bill. How are Democrats responding?

SNELL: They're dismissive, as you can imagine. Take Senator Kamala Harris of California. She said the executive order and all of the options Republicans are discussing don't do enough, and they don't meet the moment. She said states and local governments need to examine their budgets. And she said more cops aren't the answer. This is what she said.

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KAMALA HARRIS: Tonight and every night, there are black parents in America and grandparents who will be on their knees praying that their sons and daughters will be safe - every night in America. We have to take this on.

SNELL: She says she's tired of commissions and that they need to pass something now.

KELLY: All right. Kelsey Snell, thank you so much for monitoring that for us on Capitol Hill.

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

Hey, thanks for reading.
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