President Biden should name Vice President Harris to launch and lead a police reform drive ASAP
“You’ve always had my back, and I’ll have yours,” President-elect Joe Biden said on Nov. 7 to the African American voters who had saved his candidacy in the South Carolina primary, put him over the top to win the presidency and — though he didn’t know it yet — would hand his party control of the Senate by turning out in force in two January runoff elections in Georgia.
The Black community is battered and grieving as Derek Chauvin stands trial in Minneapolis for the killing of George Floyd. It is still absorbing blow after blow, including the police killing of 20-year-old Daunte Wright in nearby Brooklyn Center, followed by resignations of the police chief and the officer who fired on Wright. Black Americans sorely need Biden to have their collective back right now.
While he promised a national policing oversight commission during his campaign, Biden indicated this week through domestic policy adviser Susan Rice that the commission will not happen. Nor did police reform come up at his first news conference, not even as one of his secondary priorities, behind curbing the deadly COVID-19 pandemic and reviving the economy. And though Biden has signed nearly 40 executive orders, none addresses policing problems.
Are these signs that Biden has abandoned some of his most loyal supporters in their time of great need?
George Floyd Justice in Policing Act
Not necessarily. The decision on the commission arose from a consensus among civil rights groups and the administration that it would be better to try to pass an actual reform law than to talk more about what reforms are needed. And so the focus has shifted to the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which has passed the House and now awaits Senate action, or inaction.
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on March 12, 2021, in the Rose Garden of the White House. (Photo: Alex Brandon/AP)
The act, which ends qualified immunity protection for police officers and gives the Department of Justice subpoena power in its “pattern or practice” investigations of police departments, is a “meaningful step” toward police accountability, says Wade Henderson, interim president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. But the only certainty in the Senate is that as long as Democrats are in control, they can bring up the bill. Whether it can pass is a separate question.
This does not mean Biden is without tools to deliver more to Black people and other minorities subjected all too often to fatal police misconduct and mistakes. First, he has in his White House the right person to launch and lead a Biden administration drive to reform policing — not just to improve police practices but also to recognize and change unconscious bias and even systemic racism that impacts police attitudes and conduct. Vice President Kamala Harris, a former San Francisco district attorney and former attorney general of California, has the stature, expertise and credibility to undertake this mission.
Both Biden and Harris each proposed long lists of police reforms in their 2020 presidential campaigns. Harris, as White House point person, could drive concrete action. She and Biden should start with executive orders to improve policing, such as limiting militarization and asset seizure. And they can set a good example for local law enforcement at the federal level.
Department of Justice team
When and if they are confirmed, Biden will also have a DOJ team well suited to ramping up police reform efforts. Vanita Gupta, his pick for associate attorney general, headed the DOJ civil rights division in the Obama administration, where she led efforts to reform police departments across the country. Gupta, on leave from her post as president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights since her nomination, has won praise and endorsements from many law enforcement organizations and could be confirmed as early as next week.
Kristen Clarke, Biden’s choice for assistant attorney general for civil rights, is on leave as president and executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. She, too, has received backing from a wide array of law enforcement groups.
These are people trusted by both sides and ideally situated to resume what the Obama administration started and the Trump administration dismantled: a proactive DOJ that conducts civil rights investigations of police departments and mandates changes through consent decrees overseen by federal judges.
This is police reform that doesn’t need a commission or even Congress. The sooner it starts up again, the better. Lives within an anguished community depend on it.
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