Editor's note: Days after this story was first published, the Washington, D.C., medical examiner's office ruled that Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick suffered a stroke and died from natural causes.
WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber has placed himself at the center of the national debate over police reform as the Republican and former Duluth police officer pushes an alternative to Democratic reforms proposed after the death of George Floyd last year.
"This is an opportunity for our nation," said Stauber, as he urges police reform less sweeping than what Democrats have proposed with a bill named for George Floyd. Stauber and fellow Minnesota Republicans voted against that measure this month as it passed the House, but it's not clear Democrats have the votes to get it through the Senate.
That's left a small opening for Stauber to advocate for an alternative he's sponsored in the House dubbed the JUSTICE Act. Stauber is adamant that his effort with South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, the only Black Republican in the chamber, is a better route to take on the issue.
"I'm trying to convince people to get back to the table," said Stauber, a 23-year law enforcement veteran who retired in 2017.
But the GOP's efforts to brandish law and order as one of the party's central themes have been complicated by the events of Jan. 6, when a violent group of protesters incited by then-President Donald Trump rioted at the U.S. Capitol.
A Capitol police officer died as a result of injuries that day. Some Republicans have downplayed the events of Jan. 6, and others have suggested without evidence that left-wing protesters were actually responsible. FBI Director Christopher Wray has bluntly called the attack "domestic terrorism."
Stauber, who was once shot in the head while off duty, has a sign thanking Capitol Police posted on his office door in Washington. But he wouldn't go as far as Wray's labeling of the Capitol attack.
"I don't think it was domestic terrorism," Stauber said in an interview this week at his congressional office. He described it as "unlawful activity, criminal activity."
"Assaulting police officers, assaulting one another, damage to property, that's all unlawful behavior, and I condemn that," Stauber said. "And I want everyone to be held to ... the highest standard of the law."
The other Republican members of Minnesota's delegation did not respond to questions about whether they viewed Jan. 6 as domestic terrorism. Both Rep. Tom Emmer and Rep. Jim Hagedorn sent statements in support of Stauber's legislation.
Stauber said he looks forward to a 9/11-style commission on Jan. 6 but emphasized that "it has to be bipartisan because we want the truth." He consistently condemned "the Jan. 6 incident at the Capitol." Stauber also broadened his criticism to other examples of unrest and violence far from Capitol Hill, including in Minneapolis and Kenosha, Wis., saying he condemns "violence wholeheartedly."
The distance between Stauber's police reform bill and the Democrats' push is another example of the divide in Washington.
House Democrats' George Floyd Justice in Policing Act bars federal law enforcement from "no-knock warrants" in drug cases. Stauber's bill opts for data reporting on the use of those warrants. Democrats want to roll back "qualified immunity," which can protect officers from legal liability. Stauber and other Republicans say that could prevent people from becoming police officers. The Democrats' bill also seeks to prohibit religious and racial profiling by law enforcement.
The House Democrats' effort bans federal law enforcement from using chokeholds except in a limited deadly force capacity. The GOP bill has similar language. While both bills aim to tie federal money to state and local governments taking similar action, Democrats want the chokehold ban enacted into law, while Republicans call for a policy change.
"The George Floyd Act just has teeth that the JUSTICE Act doesn't," said Maria Ponomarenko, an associate law professor at the University of Minnesota who is also co-founder and counsel of the Policing Project at the NYU School of Law.
Stauber, who represents the Eighth District spanning northeastern Minnesota, takes his law enforcement bona fides seriously, describing himself as having a "passion for the profession." One wall of Stauber's congressional office is adorned with three large frames showing an array of patches from law enforcement departments in his district. He's also stressed the importance of community policing and its focus in the GOP bill.
He believes if his bill made it to the House floor, it would pass and become law. That seems unlikely at this point. Senate Democrats largely helped doom the Republican bill's chances when it came to a vote last year. President Joe Biden has also made clear that he supports the Democrats' police reform bill and would sign it into law.
Nekima Levy Armstrong, a Minneapolis civil rights attorney and activist, views the bill named after George Floyd as a start, but says it doesn't go far enough to overhaul the system. She said Stauber's bill is "not even within the realm of anything to get excited about."
"The JUSTICE Act as currently proposed by Rep. Stauber is a watered-down bill that does nothing to promote police accountability and if passed would result in increased funding and training opportunities for law enforcement," Levy Armstrong said. "But no real checks and balances to prevent police officers from being able to kill civilians."
Sen. Tina Smith also has concerns. The Minnesota Democrat says if Congress passed the GOP version, it would give Stauber and others "an opportunity to say that they'd done something."
"But I don't think it would really do anything," said Smith.
Yet like many other liberal priorities in Congress, the Democrats' bill faces the challenge of overcoming the Senate's 60-vote threshold. While some Senate Democrats have signaled they want to eliminate the filibuster, there's not enough support right now to make that a reality.
"I'm hoping that the Speaker will understand that the partisan bill has a slim to none chance … to passing the Senate," Stauber said.
The lead sponsor of the Democrats' bill, Rep. Karen Bass of California, conceded that it "would have a hard time getting sixty votes in the Senate." But so would the Republicans' option.
Bass said there are good parts in both bills, and stressed that while there are no negotiations, some have had "very informal conversations" on the matter, although she didn't disclose names. Bass said she enjoys working with Stauber and says his reluctance to call the Jan. 6 attack domestic terrorism doesn't impact their ability to work together on police reform.
"I keep my eyes on the prize," Bass said. "And the prize is a bill that improves policing in the United States on President Biden's desk."
Staff writer Patrick Condon contributed to this report.
Hunter Woodall • 612-673-4559