WASHINGTON – St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter on Tuesday urged Congress to make broad national police accountability reforms, including standards that would outlaw chokeholds or neck restraints like the one that cost George Floyd his life at the hands of Minneapolis police.
“We can establish a national standard of policing to curb brutality, end racial profiling, and eliminate qualified immunity,” Carter told a Senate panel considering police reforms. “Undoubtedly, you will be pressured by powerful friends who will paint these critical reforms as hostile to law enforcement, but our work to restore Americans’ faith in our justice system is a lifeline for officers who serve in good faith.”
Carter’s testimony came as President Donald Trump signed an executive order providing incentives for better police training, higher certification standards and a national database to track police misconduct, though his reform package fell short of the demands of many protesters and activists.
Carter’s comments, delivered remotely at a hearing of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, came in the wake of the anger that enveloped the Twin Cities after Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck as Floyd begged for his life.
Carter, whose father was one of St. Paul’s first black police officers, said mayors like him need federal support to regain control in an atmosphere where use of force often takes precedence over helping address what causes crime to begin with.
“Our country’s enforcement-heavy public safety strategies aren’t designed to address the root causes of crime, only the symptoms,” Carter said. “We deserve more than a swift response after a crime is committed, we deserve investment to reduce the number of times we have to call police in the first place.”
Carter also asked for a national record-keeping system that will help localities and states weed out problem officers. “We fire officers only to see them shielded from accountability, reinstated through arbitration, or hired into another agency that has no knowledge of their past,” he said.
Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota invited Carter to address the Senate committee as Republicans and Democrats in Congress work on separate packages of police reforms. House Democrats have proposed reforms that would ban police chokeholds and make it easier for victims of police brutality to sue officers and departments, something many Republicans oppose.
Trump, working with Senate Republicans, offered a more limited package that also bans chokeholds except in certain circumstances. Echoing many reform activists, the president’s order calls on departments to involve social workers and mental health professionals on calls dealing with homelessness, mental illness and addiction.
State lawmakers in St. Paul also are working on police reform legislation this week, though the outcome remains unsettled.
Agreement in Congress may prove more difficult. Democrats and Republicans differ on how much criminal and civil immunity police officers should receive for alleged misconduct. Democrats generally favor less immunity.
Klobuchar, a Judiciary Committee member, pointed to unsuccessful attempts by her and other senators to persuade the U.S. Justice Department to investigate police practices in Minneapolis. The ability of federal officials to compel changes in police behavior, such as prohibiting the use of chokeholds, may find common ground. Other details of reform will likely need negotiation, committee members seemed to agree.
Facing pressure to take action following Floyd’s death, Trump announced his order in a Rose Garden gathering where he praised both law enforcement and the families of those who lost their lives during interactions with police.
“We have to find common ground,” Trump said “But I strongly oppose the radical and dangerous efforts to defund, dismantle, and dissolve our police departments. … Americans know the truth: Without police, there is chaos; without law, there is anarchy; and without safety, there is catastrophe. We need leaders at every level of government who have the moral clarity to state these obvious facts.”
Among those attending the White House rollout was Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber of Minnesota, a former police officer. “The death of George Floyd calls for lasting change, and I am proud to see the President take decisive action on this issue,” Stauber tweeted afterward.
Andy Skoogman, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police, said the chiefs welcome the “consistency” that will come from policies set at by the state and federal government. “We do have agencies across the state that have different policies,” he said.
Skoogman pointedly noted, however, that the hold used by Chauvin and Floyd was “unacceptable, unreasonable and unnecessary.”
Steve Linders, spokesman for the St. Paul Police Department, said chokeholds already have been banned for years in St. Paul. “No one in our leadership can remember when they were even taught in the academy,” Linders said, adding that a new policy in the wake of the Floyd killing made it “crystal clear” that they are “explicitly” banned.
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, the only black Republican in the Senate, is expected to introduce a GOP police reform package Wednesday that could win Trump’s support. But Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a top Trump ally, cautioned that Republicans and Democrats cannot talk “past one another” if they want to pass a reform law.
He referred to Scott, who has been stopped five times by police in the capital, saying, “Tim and I have completely different experiences with the cops. Why is it?”
Staff writer Rochelle Olson contributed to this report.