Attorney General William Barr joined Sen. Tim Scott in South Carolina on Wednesday in an effort to garner support for the Republican senator’s police reform effort, arguing the key is “striking the right balance” and “not defunding the police.”
The two met with religious and business leaders in Columbia to discuss Scott’s legislation, which has stalled in the Senate following Democratic opposition. The attorney general shed light on why he thinks police reform is needed and explained to reporters at Bethel AME Church why he supports Scott’s bill.
“I think we have to avoid extremes and recognize that it’s a question of prudence and balance,” Barr said. “Basically, as I see it, we need a police force. We need these institutions to provide peace and security in society to allow our lives to flourish. At the same time, whenever you have that kind of institution, you have the possibility of abuse, and so you have to put reins and checks in place to make sure that these institutions that are designed to protect these community don’t themselves become oppressive, and it’s a question of striking the right balance.”
The attorney general argued: “We need to support the police so they’re out there protecting the community. But at the same time, we have to be sure there aren’t these abuses. And it’s striking a balance. It’s not defunding police or doing away with the police or demonizing the police, nor is it giving short shrift to the legitimate concerns that are out there about police abuses and overreach. So I think we have to strike a balance here.”
A nationwide reckoning on race and police use of force began after George Floyd, a 46-year-old unarmed black man, died in police custody in late May. He died after a white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, pinned him down by placing a knee on the back of his neck for nearly nine minutes. Footage of the incident set off a wave of outrage, leading to protests in major cities across the country, some of which became violent as protesters rioted, looted stores, destroyed property, burned buildings, and clashed with police. Chauvin is now facing charges of second-degree murder and third-degree manslaughter, and the other officers involved in Floyd’s detainment have been charged with aiding and abetting murder.
Some leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement and their supporters have called for the “defunding” of the police in the wake of Floyd’s death, and already some cities, including Minneapolis and New York City, have taken steps to dismantle and remove funding from their police departments.
Floyd’s death also spurred on the pursuit of police reform in Congress.
Barr said Wednesday that “beyond just — and I don’t minimize it — but beyond the shooting of individuals, there’s this problem of profiling and treating people as suspects before you treat them as citizens — so those are some of the issues that were discussed.”
Scott’s bill — The JUSTICE Act — would create a national policing commission to scrutinize the U.S. criminal justice system; push for data related to no-knock raids and to serious bodily injury or death caused by police to be reported to the FBI to be analyzed; make lynching a federal hate crime; bar chokeholds by federal officers and discourage them on the state and local level; and push for departments to have greater funding for improved policing.
In late June, Senate Democrats blocked Republicans from getting the 60 votes needed to begin debate on Scott’s bill. Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois dismissed it as a “token, half-hearted” approach to reform. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused Republicans of “trying to get away with murder, actually — the murder of George Floyd.”
Scott said Wednesday that President Trump’s recent executive order and that his own bill both deal with empowering “co-responders” who might be able to assist police in better responding to problems such as homelessness, drug abuse, and mental health episodes.
“Some situations that officers are asked to take care of today really may not fall into traditional law enforcement responses,” Scott said. “The executive order, as well as my legislation, speaks to the exact opposite of defunding the police. It actually speaks to funding the respires and making resources available to departments to deal with those issues.”
Scott also acknowledged that the first vote on his bill “was a failure” and that he is “back to the drawing board.” But he said he remained optimistic about the conversations he’d been having with Democrats. Naming Rep. Karen Bass of California in particular, the South Carolina Republican said he hoped Democrats would be willing to compromise to get a bill passed.
“The more she has taken a look at the bill, the more she has suggested that half or two-thirds of a loaf might be better than none,” Scott said. “Because right now, we’re sitting on zero. And that speaks poorly to the American people and specifically to communities of color who have been challenged by these situations for decades … The conversations with folks who are now calling me about the legislation from the other side suggest that perhaps it’s not dead. We may have a Lazarus moment. We may not.”