New Mexico Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich are calling for changes in the culture of how law enforcement agencies operate around the country.
And they said legislation that has been introduced in Congress this week is a step in that direction.
The two Democratic senators have thrown their support behind the Justice in Policing Act introduced by Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., following nationwide protests triggered by the death of George Floyd after he was arrested by Minneapolis police officers.
Democratic U.S. Reps. Deb Haaland and Ben Ray Luján have also endorsed the bill, while Rep. Xochitl Torres Small said she supports many of the reforms in it.
“We need to be looking at getting to a place where we feel police are acting as guardians,” Udall said during a teleconference earlier this week.
Heinrich voiced a similar sentiment during an interview with the Journal on Thursday. He said law enforcement agencies needed to “move from a warrior mentality” to a “neighborhood guardian mentality.”
“I don’t think that more AR-15s and more military vehicles, more MRAPS, lead to better public safety,” Heinrich said, referring to AR-15 rifles and mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, respectively. “I think that drives a wedge between communities and police that is unhealthy.”
Haaland said “it is time to get weapons of war off our streets.” And Udall said the legislation does address whether law enforcement agencies are “becoming too militarized.”
The bill would limit the transfer of military-grade equipment to state and local law enforcement.
The bill is aimed at holding police accountable, ending racial profiling, changing the culture of law enforcement and building trust between communities and law enforcement by addressing systemic racism and bias to help save lives, according to a fact sheet distributed by the Congressional Black Caucus.
The legislation would require state and local law enforcement agencies to report use-of-force data, broken down by race, sex, disability, religion and age. The bill would establish a National Police Misconduct Registry to prevent problematic officers who are fired or on leave from moving to another jurisdiction without accountability.
“It’s very important that we follow through at the state, local and national level on the disclosure of police department misconduct, of whether it’s excessive force or shootings or these kinds of things,” Udall said.
Heinrich calls the bill “groundbreaking,” but said “it is pretty narrow.”
He said the bill includes “the prohibition of things that we know lead to unnecessary deaths, things like chokeholds and no-knock warrants, and establishes the premise that police are subject to the law just like everyone else.”
The legislation would end “racial profiling and the bill mandates racial bias training,” Udall said. Federal officers would be required to use dashboard cameras and body cameras. Local law enforcement would be required to use federal funds to ensure the use of body cameras.
The bill would amend the federal criminal statute from a “willfulness” (acting with intent to cause harm) to a “recklessness” (knowing that action would likely cause harm) standard to identify and prosecute police misconduct.
A Department of Justice task force would also be established to coordinate the investigation, prosecution and enforcement of law enforcement misconduct cases.
The legislation would also make it easier for people to recover damages when police violate their constitutional rights. It would eliminate qualified immunity for law enforcement, which shields government officials from being personally liable for actions performed on the job unless their actions violate clearly defined federal laws.
And a grant program would be created for state attorneys general to develop authority to conduct independent investigations into problematic police departments. Grants would also be established to help communities add task forces and commissions to create just and equitable public safety approaches.
The legislation does not address protest demands that police be defunded. That is something Torres Small told the Journal she opposes.
“We must invest in necessary changes together to protect our communities,” she said.
She said she supports reform that would ban chokeholds and no-knock entries, increase reporting on use of force, “as well as implement new and robust training methods and safeguards that hold our law enforcement officers accountable to their highest standard: to protect and serve.”
Heinrich believes the defund demand is “the symptom of the reality that for some time that we expected law enforcement to solve everything for us. That’s not a reasonable thing to expect from law enforcement … They’re not the people who should be doing mental health care for us, dealing with the everyday impact of addiction treatment.”
Udall said he believes mayors and police chiefs in New Mexico are already moving in the direction of change the legislation calls for.
But Heinrich believes there will be resistance to some of the changes.
He said now is the time to “step up” and address issues that at one time were too uncomfortable to address.
“That’s going to be really hard … This is something we’ve got to address,” Heinrich said.