WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) today spoke on the Senate Floor calling for the Senate-passage of the Justice in Policing Act of 2020 to reform the police system as Americans across the country demand an end to police violence disproportionately targeting Black Americans and communities of color in the United States.
The legislation would reform the current law of “qualified immunity” that often makes it difficult to hold police officers accountable for using excessive force, even in cases that result in death. The bill would also increase transparency in police use of force, ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants, limit the transfer of military-grade equipment to state and local law enforcement, mandate the use of body cameras for police officers, end use of racial and religious profiling and finally designate lynching as a federal crime.
Key excerpts from Senator Heinrich’s speech include:
"As a father raising two sons, my heart aches for the parents whose sons and daughters’ names we now chant loudly in the streets. It is unacceptable for any American to live in fear of violent encounters when they enter public spaces, retail stores, or just go out for a walk. The very fact that painful experiences with law enforcement are ubiquitous among so many in our country should be evidence enough that our current model of policing is not working."
"We all need to carefully assess the effectiveness of continuing a status quo in law enforcement that is clearly not keeping all of us safe. It will not be easy to dismantle the “us vs. them” warrior mentality that is so pervasive in far too many of our law enforcement agencies. If you treat the communities that you police like they are war zones, you create a relationship that dehumanizes the very people you are charged to protect. And you fuel more of the very violence and crime that you are supposed to prevent."
"We can’t keep accepting a system that justifies this level of deadly violence. The House of Representatives demonstrated last week that we can take action to address this system. Answering the calls of Americans all across our country, the House voted to pass the Justice in Policing Act. The Senate needs to do the same. Because no one should be above the law. No one, including those in law enforcement."
Senator Heinrich’s full remarks as prepared for delivery are below:
Americans are demanding an end to the persistent racial injustice and violence that afflicts our country.
Protesters have gathered outside of the White House and the Capitol.
New Mexicans, from our biggest city to our smallest communities, are marching for meaningful change.
I have joined these protests in Emancipation Hall, in the streets of Washington, D.C., and now I am joining them from the United States Senate floor.
The systemic racism being called out is real.
And it is all around us, all of the time.
Within law enforcement, we have seen it in the horrific videos documenting the racist violence that took the lives of black men and women at the hands of police officers and extrajudicial killers.
As a father raising two sons, my heart aches for the parents whose sons and daughters’ names we now chant loudly in the streets.
It is unacceptable for any American to live in fear of violent encounters when they enter public spaces, retail stores, or just go out for a walk.
The very fact that painful experiences with law enforcement are ubiquitous among so many in our country should be evidence enough that our current model of policing is not working.
That’s why I am proud to support my colleagues, Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, and cosponsor their Justice in Policing Act.
This sweeping legislation reforms the police system as Americans across the country demand an end to police violence that is disproportionately targeting communities of color.
It would address qualified immunity standards in federal law which currently stand in the way of police officers being held accountable in court when they violate constitutional rights.
It would improve transparency in police departments by creating a national police misconduct registry requiring accurate data reporting on misconduct and use-of-force incidents and ensure problematic officers can't avoid accountability by changing departments.
It would also institute a real national ban on chokeholds and other deadly restrictive airway holds.
We have seen this use of lethal force kill George Floyd and Eric Garner before him.
And earlier this year, in Las Cruces, New Mexico, when a police officer killed Antonio Valenzuela with a vascular neck restraint.
While I hope that justice will be served for Mr. Floyd and Mr. Valenzuela’s families, I know that these men should have never died in the first place.
This lethal and unnecessary type of force should not be allowed anywhere in America.
The Justice in Policing Act would put an end to the injudicious use of no-knock warrants that led to the murder of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky.
In order to prevent future extrajudicial racist killings, like the murder of Ahmaud Arbery earlier this year by vigilantes in Georgia, the Justice in Policing Act would also finally designate lynching as a federal crime.
The legislation would also make broad improvements in training for police officers.
That includes implicit bias training to confront the prejudice that contributes to racial profiling and confrontational treatment of people of color.
We must also make de-escalation and crisis intervention techniques standard operating procedure in encounters and make the use of lethal force the absolute last resort.
In my state, we have seen far too many incidents in which police have killed people of color with lethal tactics or responded to New Mexicans experiencing mental illness or addiction with unnecessary force that resulted in death.
Nearly a decade ago, the Department of Justice began an investigation into the Albuquerque Police Department after numerous such fatal police encounters.
In 2014, the Department of Justice released its report that cited chronic abuses of civil rights, widespread community distrust, and a pattern excessive force across the Department.
For these past six years, the Albuquerque Police Department has been under a federally-enforced consent decree that has brought much needed changes in hiring, training, and use-of-force policies.
This ongoing process of changing just this one police department’s culture is far from complete.
Court hearings continue and a federally appointed monitor continues to oversee the years-long process of completing all of the reforms in the federally-mandated Court Approved Settlement Agreement.
And we have still seen multiple fatal police shootings each year since reforms began.
That includes one case from just this March in which the response to a welfare check on Valente Acosta-Bustillos, a man with documented behavioral health challenges, ended in officers fatally shooting him after he wielded a shovel that he had been using to do yard work.
This is not an isolated incident.
The evidence is everywhere that systemic reform is needed for law enforcement, not just in Albuquerque, but all across my state, and all across our country.
Since the beginning of 2015, since the nation reeled over the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, there have been more than 5,000 fatal police shootings.
It pains me to say that in that time period, New Mexico has had the highest rate of these shootings in the entire country on a per capita basis.
And while our overall nationwide statistics on deaths in police custody are incomplete—which is a problem in itself—the data we do have makes it clear that police in the United States are killing people at a rate much higher than our peer nations.
A review of media-reported arrest-related deaths by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that more than 1,300 people died in police custody in the ten months from June 2015 through March 2016.
During that same time period, only 13 people in the United Kingdom died in or after being in police custody.
While we are a much larger country, even on a per capita basis, that means that Americans are being killed at a rate approximately six times higher than in the UK.
Many if not most of these deaths are deemed “justified” by law enforcement.
But I want to say in the strongest possible terms: We can’t keep accepting a system that justifies this level of deadly violence.
The House of Representatives demonstrated last week that we can take action to address this system.
Answering the calls of Americans all across our country, the House voted to pass the Justice in Policing Act.
The Senate needs to do the same.
Because no one should be above the law.
No one, including those in law enforcement.
While I believe these last weeks and months of Americans calling for justice have changed many hearts and minds, I am not naïve enough to believe the current administration is either willing or capable of bringing the level of change that Americans are demanding.
Unfortunately, in the last three and a half years, President Trump and his Justice Department have either turned a blind eye, excused, or even openly encouraged a more violent police culture.
Starting under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and certainly continuing under Attorney General Bill Barr today, this administration has spent much more time and Department of Justice resources aiding the president’s own political battles and implementing even harsher penalties on Americans than on holding police departments accountable for guaranteeing equal justice under law.
But none of this excuses us in the United States Senate from our own responsibility to lead.
We have a moral obligation as senators to grapple with how we can bring about necessary federal changes with better federal policies.
That should start with passing the accountability measures, the meaningful improvements to police training, and the bans on excessive and lethal force tactics that are in the Justice in Policing Act.
We also need to encourage the changes that will necessarily need to come at the local government level.
Advocates are calling on local governments to reassess their budgets and how much they have prioritized policing and prisons over education and housing.
They are also calling on their local leaders to reimagine a world where armed police officers are not the responders dispatched to all crisis situations.
Last month, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller announced a proposal to create an entirely new public safety department that would dispatch social workers, housing and homelessness specialists, and violence prevention and diversion program experts instead of police officers to homelessness, so-called “down and out” calls, and behavioral health crises.
That is the scale of systemic change we need to be thinking about and devoting real resources toward implementing in all of our communities.
We all need to carefully assess the effectiveness of continuing a status quo in law enforcement that is clearly not keeping all of us safe.
It will not be easy to dismantle the “us vs. them” warrior mentality that is so pervasive in far too many of our law enforcement agencies.
If you treat the communities that you police like they are war zones, you create a relationship that dehumanizes the very people you are charged to protect.
And you fuel more of the very violence and crime that you are supposed to prevent.
Our streets in American communities should never be treated like battlefields.
Our local law enforcement officers should not be arming themselves with military grade equipment like AR-15s or MRAP armored vehicles.
They should not be meeting peaceful protestors or demonstrators with tear gas, flash grenades, or rubber bullets.
Police officers should not be treating any of us, whatever our race and regardless of the reason we are encountering them, as if we are enemy combatants.
This militarized version of policing is simply not the way to keep the peace or create a sense of public safety in our communities.
It has created a distrust in police and perpetuated trauma and inequities in communities all across our country.
I believe we must transform this dangerous warrior mentality into a guardian and neighborhood support mentality that looks to serve all members of our communities.
We should remember that police officers are supposed to be officers of the peace.
Now, I want to be careful to emphasize that the responsibility for changing this mentality must not fall entirely on the shoulders of our law enforcement officers.
Because we must also recognize that our law enforcement officers, too, are being impacted and harmed by this broken system.
We as a society have asked them to treat the symptoms and respond to the deficiencies that all of us have allowed to persist in education, in health care, in addiction treatment, and in housing.
On a daily basis, police officers address the most acute impacts of us not solving those other issues.
I’d argue that this is because the same wrong-headed “us vs. them” warrior mentality that I have been describing has long resided within this very institution—and has been baked into our country as a whole.
It is this same warrior mentality that has fueled the federal government’s ineffective and racist War on Drugs and War on Crime over the course of the last 50 years.
Intentionally or not, these policies helped to build what advocates label the “school-to-prison pipeline” and the “New Jim Crow.”
New Jim Crow may sound harsh. But in my estimation, it is an astonishingly accurate way to describe the unequal society we have created across our entire country.
More than a half century since the marchers in the Civil Rights Movement called on us to create an America where we were all judged by the content of our character rather than the color of our skin, we find ourselves facing the same challenges as 50 years ago with implicit bias and structural inequities ravaging our communities of color.
That’s what you get after combining militarized policing with overly harsh sentencing laws, mass incarceration, private prisons, continued institutional racial discrimination, and a decades-long disinvestment in public education, affordable housing, food assistance, and addiction treatment, and health care resources.
That’s the system we are talking about when we talk about systemic racism.
It will take more than nice words and kind wishes in a fleeting period of weeks to dismantle that system that has been built up in the 400 years since the first slaves were brought to our shores—and in the last 50 years of rapidly growing mass incarceration.
The sooner that we finally recognize this, the sooner we can try to envision and implement effective comprehensive reforms on the scale necessary to create institutions that look out for all of us.
Over the last months, as we have all confronted the health and economic crises brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, I have often heard that we need to get back to normal.
But that version of normal was not working for all of us.
Rather than hoping to get back to that unequal and unjust normal of before, I’d offer this challenge to all of us.
We have a real opportunity to rebuild our country in the months and years ahead.
Let’s rebuild our country to create an America that includes all of us.
Let’s rebuild our country in a way that respects the human dignity of black lives and provides safety and opportunity to all of us.
Let’s rebuild America to become the place we all want it to be, a nation where we see each other as fellow human beings equally deserving of life and liberty.
There is still so much more hard work ahead of us.
Passing the Justice in Policing Act is a first, good step on the long path forward.