The larger conversation around police abuse and civil rights violations in the United States may become harder if a new bill introduced by Republicans becomes law. The Back the Blue Act of 2017 was introduced earlier this month in both the House and the Senate. It would make it a federal crime to assault an officer of the law (currently something handled at the state level) as well as make it harder to charge officers for alleged violations of civil rights.
The bill was introduced in both Houses by Texas Republicans. In the Senate, John Cornyn introduced the bill with 15 co-sponsors. Ted Poe in the House was joined by five other Republicans. According to reporting by The Washington Post, the law would have three main legs that would work to make holding police accountable all the more difficult.
First off, there would be new, extensive federal crimes, covering things like killing or attempting to kill an officer. Any police officer whose department receives federal funding would be covered by the law — nearly all of them — and anyone found guilty of one of these new federal offenses would face the death penalty. Shockingly it would limit appeals too. Plus some of this would apply to assaulting an officer as well, with a mandatory minimum of 20 years when "a deadly or dangerous weapon was used during and in relation to the assault."
So, two, all of this would limit local prosecutors and police departments from working to reform the justice system. Because if, for example, as The Post points out, a local prosecutor were working with a victim of police abuse, a federal prosecutor could step in and charge that person with assaulting an officer or attempting to kill one.
That would get in the way of any sort of reform at the state or local level. And the bill explicitly says that the feds can intervene in cases where "prosecution by the United States is in the public interest and necessary to secure substantial justice." That's pretty much a blank check for federal intervention.
And the third hugely problematic part is the limiting of damages or compensation that victims of police abuse or civil rights violations can get. If the violation happened "in the course of, or as a result of, or is related to, conduct by the injured party that, more likely than not, constituted a felony or a crime of violence," the court can't give damages that exceed "out-of-pocket expenditures and other monetary loss." In other words, no settlements or compensation for these violations.
Senior criminal justice researcher at Human Rights Watch, John Raphling, denounced the bill:
This bill would not protect police officers from danger. Instead, it protects police departments from accountability, and removes important incentives for those departments to monitor themselves and improve the quality of their policing ... Under the guise of protecting officers, this bill would make police less accountable, which can only undermine their legitimacy with the communities they serve. Congress should reject this dangerous bill.
At this time, the federal government should be moving in exactly the opposite direction, helping reform police departments to keep racial bias out of their work, stop the use of excessive force, and prevent police shootings. Call your senators and representatives and tell them to oppose this bill.