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Republican Senator Comments On Policing Reform

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Senate Judiciary Committee has held its first hearing on policing since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Committee chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina made clear that 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.

CHANG: The hearing comes as a working group of Senate Republicans prepares to release a police reform bill tomorrow. Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma is part of that group, and he joins us now.

Welcome, Senator.

JAMES LANKFORD: Thank you very much good. Good to be with you.

CHANG: Good to have you with us. Did you hear anything in today's testimony that either expanded or changed your understanding of the issues that your group is grappling with now?

LANKFORD: Well, our group has grappled through this for quite a while. We've made quite a few phone calls to members of the black community in leadership to individuals to families to law enforcement to try to be able to collect ideas over the past several weeks. So our focus from the beginning of this has been to be able to hear as many people as we can and to be able to gather good ideas.

CHANG: OK. Well, President Trump signed an executive order on policing earlier today, as I'm sure you know. It calls for police departments to do more training, to track officers with multiple incidents of misconduct and to ban chokeholds, except when an officer fears for his or her life. Do you think that goes far enough?

LANKFORD: Yeah, that's a beginning point. Every president has the ability to be able to do executive actions. That is legislative authority that the president was actually pulling up today and saying, here are some things that we could do that any president could have done over the past several presidents to say, here's some new things that we can implement, because the president has those authorities already. But an executive action is not law. We still have to pass something through the House and the Senate to be able to extend additional issues. We can change grants. We can change some of the transparency issues. We can make some push on some of the hiring practices and information that a president can't do on their own just by executive action - so pleased the president's taking some executive action. But there's definitely more that's needed in actual legislation.

CHANG: Well, what about a ban on chokeholds? I mean, do you expect the Senate bill to include a total ban, regardless of whether an officer fears for their life?

LANKFORD: Yeah. I think we're getting into a nuance here that if there's a struggle and an officer is fearing for his life, that somehow - that we're going to have litigation for them dealing with a chokehold when they're just trying to be able to stay alive in a fight that may happen on a street. When you ban chokeholds, you're banning chokeholds period, where you're trying to be able to reach out and say that this was settled in 2017 - something that was called the consensus for national use of force that - most law enforcement across the country has already banned chokeholds and many other different types of holds that can actually injure an individual or inappropriate restraint. So there are some basics that have already been sent down. Most departments around the country have already carried that out. Many other departments say they don't necessarily have a ban on chokeholds, but they don't train for chokeholds. And they tell the officers, you can only use legally what you've been trained for. And so there - again, this is more difficult than it looks, dealing with some of those nuances.

CHANG: Right.

LANKFORD: But we do want to provide some clarity for every department to say, that's inappropriate.

CHANG: Well, putting aside those nuances, do you personally support a total ban on chokeholds...

LANKFORD: I do.

CHANG: ...Regardless of whether an officer fears for their life?

LANKFORD: I do. I do think you'd have a total ban on chokeholds on it. Obviously, if an officer is in the struggle for their life and they're just trying to be able to survive, they're going to do whatever it takes to survive and deal with the legal issues later on. But I do think that's an inappropriate hold and is not necessary for law enforcement to use that as a restraint.

CHANG: Well, speaking of litigation - you raised that issue. I want to turn to something that your Republican colleague Lindsey Graham said. He's working on the legislation with you and is chair of the committee. He opened the door to what's called qualified immunity. Now, this is something that can be used to shield officers from lawsuits. Let's listen to what Graham 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.

CHANG: Senator, what are your thoughts on qualified immunity? Is there any chance that it will end up in this bill?

LANKFORD: I think there's a lot of good conversation on qualified immunity. This has been an issue that's been raised for a long time now. It was created by the courts. Legislatively, we do have to be able to address this. But the challenge is, do you have it on the supervisor and the supervising entity - the city, the police department itself? Or do you have it on the officer? There is a responsibility to be able to have for every officer that they're going to follow the law. They're going to protect the constitutional rights of every individual. There's also responsibility that if the department is not carrying out - and the city manager and the mayor are not executing good supervision for a police department, they allow individuals to be there that have multiple different offenses. And they get brought back on board after discipline after discipline after discipline. So I think the best place to be able put this is on the supervising entity.

Quite frankly, when you're suing an individual officer, you create a situation where every individual officer has to hesitate on the street. If you're - put the responsibility on the supervising entity to say, you better supervise your people and train them well so everyone is well-trained, everyone is well-prepared because if you don't, then there's going to be problems, and you're going to have litigation on you and have liability on you - then that pushes better supervision. That deals with more systemic issues when you actually push it to the next level.

CHANG: Now, I understand that Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina expects to present the bill tomorrow, but Majority Leader Mitch McConnell needs to decide whether to even take it up before the July 4 recess. What do you think? Should the Senate prioritize this over other business right now?

LANKFORD: I do think that the Senate should take this up as soon as possible. Obviously, the leader will have to make that decision. He's trying to work with a lot of different scheduling issues because there is a lot of legislation that's moving through the Senate right now that - it's all important. The National Defense Authorization is very important to our national defense and our security of our nation. Dealing with the police reform that we're dealing with is exceptionally important to where we are as a country. Our appropriation bills are - very, very important that we get all those things managed. So there's a lot that has to be done. He's got to be able to manage the floor. It's part of the responsibility he has. But my encouragement to him is to be able to take up the police reform quickly.

CHANG: Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, thank you very much for joining us today.

LANKFORD: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.