Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: Alaska senators blame Democrats for blocking police reform bill

Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski is calling out Senate Democrats for blocking a police reform bill Wednesday morning.

The Senate Justice Act, proposed by South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott, included incentives for police departments to ban choke holds, required more disclosure regarding the use of force and no-knock warrants, and penalized the falsifying of police reports. The bill also urged additional use of police body cameras, made lynching a federal hate crime and outlined additional training in deescelation and mental health.

Two Senate Democrats joined Senate Republicans in voting open the bill for amendments on the floor, but the vote fell short by four and left the Senate without any reform bill to discuss.

“That is an impasse that in my view is absolutely unacceptable,” Murkowski said in a phone call with the Daily News-Miner Wednesday afternoon. “That’s not being responsive to what we’ve seen with the protests and the anxiety and the justifiable anger that people have. They want to see some of these policing reforms, and they don’t want to have to wait. There is an urgency that you are seeing around the country, and we have just failed them in even being able to get on the only bill that has been introduced here in the Senate.”

Democrats in the House introduced their own bill called the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 last week, which Murkowski says overlaps in areas with the Senate bill that failed Wednesday morning.

“In terms of data collection of police encounters, on the training with regards to excessive force and deescelation, the banning of choke holds and the efforts to look into no-knock warrants, the body cameras, accountability. Both bills make lynching a federal crime. There’s so much that was common between the two bills, that’s why it was so distressing this afternoon that there was not support from the other side of the aisle,” Murkowski said.

The House bill contains stricter reforms in areas such as qualified immunity which protects police officers from personal litigation, one of the issues not included in the Senate bill that Democrats pointed to as problematic. But, the Senate bill sought to create a national database for police misconduct information to ensure misconduct reports “follow” police officers who seek hiring elsewhere after being fired from or on the basis of wrongful policing, Murkowski said. Both bills encourage the collaboration of police forces and social workers to jointly address calls involving mental illness.

For Murkowski, the discussion of social worker crisis response teams brings up a bigger issue she says contributes to the problem of over-policing — the lack of adequate social services and a drop in funding for those services.

As state and national budget cuts create strain in what Murkowski calls “social safety net” services, more of these issues are being placed on the shoulders of police officers who are not trained to properly handle situations involving mental health, addiction and homelessness.

“We’ve seen our social services and the safety net they provide erode, and when that erodes, the problem is still there. We have no gotten rid of homelessness or substance abuse or levels of addiction,” Murkowski said. “But what we have done is we have put greater burden on our police force and this is not what they are trained to do.”

Alaska’s senior senator said she was frustrated that Senate Democrats chose to quash the bill rather than vote it into an amendment process and add in areas they saw fit.

Murkowski’s colleague, Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan, issued a statement later Wednesday criticizing Senate Democrats for blocking the bill.

Sullivan defended the “vast, vast majority” of police officers as “very honorable.”

“But, still, as recent events have shown, particularly the horrendous killing of George Floyd, not everybody has trust in their local police officers, and reforms were needed,” Sullivan said. “I think that that is something that most Americans, most Alaskans, I would even say most people in law enforcement, agree on, and that’s what this bill, the JUSTICE Act, does and gives us.”

Sullivan specifically pointed to the bill’s provision naming lynching as a federal crime as “shockingly overdue.”

By:  Erin McGroarty
Source: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner