Welch hails House police reforms; Senate approval unlikely

Xusana Davis, Peter Welch, Skyler Nash, and Kyle Dodson
Rep. Peter Welch appeared alongside Vermont racial equity officials and advocates on Thursday to discuss the passage of the Justice in Policing Act by the U.S. House. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

With the U.S. House of Representatives poised to approve sweeping police and racial justice reform legislation Thursday, Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said the measure is an important first step in addressing systemic racism.

But he said that more must be done.

Welch, accompanied by racial justice advocates, said Thursday that “The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act” — which he along with 230 other House members co-sponsored — includes comprehensive reforms that will hold police accountable and begin to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.

“The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis has galvanized the nation in a way that is unique in my lifetime,” Welch said as he stood in front of the Statehouse in Montpelier. 

The bill is expected to pass the House but will likely be defeated in the Republican-led Senate.

Welch added that what shocked him most in the video of Floyd’s killing was how at ease the police officer, Derek Chauvin, appeared as he knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

“It tells us that this officer thought he was doing nothing wrong,” Welch said. “So sure, he’s a bad officer, but that’s a reflection of a bad culture.”

Welch was joined by Xusana Davis, Vermont’s executive director of racial equity, Skyler Nash of the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, Christel Tonoki of the CVU Racial Justice Alliance and Kyle Dodson of the Greater Burlington YMCA.

Davis and others stressed that law enforcement reforms have been a priority of racial justice advocates long before this year, and that they hope the measures in the House bill will lead to further changes.

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“Today is the day we are planting the seed,” Davis said. “It is not the day we are eating the fruit.”

“This bill is a comprehensive first step, but it is not enough,” Welch added. “We must do more to build a more just society free of systemic racism that has held Black people down in our country for far too long.”

The Democrat-controlled lower chamber is expected to pass the legislation Thursday evening. It includes extensive reforms such as banning chokeholds and no-knock warrants, makes lynching a federal crime, and creates a national police misconduct registry among others.

The legislation would also eliminates qualified immunity for police officers — allowing citizens to hold police accountable in civil court if police violate constitutional rights — and amends the federal civil rights law that governs police misconduct would no longer require prosecutors to prove that an officer’s actions were willful and could allow an officer to be charged for acting with “reckless disregard” for an individual’s life.

Xusana Davis
Xusana Davis, Vermont’s executive director of racial equity, appeared alongside Rep. Peter Welch on Thursday at a press conference on the federal Justice in Policing Act. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Thursday morning, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., urged the U.S. Senate to take up and pass the House Democrats’ bill, adding that Congress has the chance to make sure more people are not killed the same way George Floyd died.

“We have the opportunity and the obligation to ensure that his death and the death of so many others are not in vain,” Pelosi said. 

On Wednesday, Senate Democrats blocked the Republicans’ police reform bill, which had been shepherded forward by Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. — the lone African American Republican — saying it did not go nearly far enough to address the issue of police use of force against people of color in the U.S. and did not hold police officers accountable.

On the Senate floor Wednesday, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a member of the Judiciary Committee, said the American public is demanding the Senate “roll up their sleeves and do the hard work” necessary to ensure that police officers are subject to the law and are not held above it.

“The Senate is acting as if it is not up to the task,” he said. “What the Senate does is only advance a patchwork of half measures that would do little more than place a handful of Band-Aids on deep generations old wounds.”

The Republican-controlled Senate is unlikely to approve the House police reform measure, as President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., oppose the qualified immunity measure which would make it easier to sue police — citing concerns that this would open up numerous litigation cases against law enforcement.

Mike Dougherty contributed reporting

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Kit Norton

About Kit

Kit Norton is the general assignment reporter at VTDigger. He is originally from eastern Vermont and graduated from Emerson College in 2017 with a degree in journalism. In 2016, he was a recipient of The Society of Environmental Journalists' Emerging Environmental Journalist award. Kit has worked at PRI's weekly radio environmental program, Living on Earth, and has written for the online news site Truthout.

Email: [email protected]

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