Pa.’s Fitzpatrick votes with U.S. House Dems to pass police reform package

Riot police, surrounded by Black Lives Matter protesters, stand outside the Pennsylvania Capitol building in May 30, 2020. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House passed a sweeping police reform package Thursday night in response to massive civil unrest over police brutality.

The package cleared the chamber largely along partisan lines, with 236 lawmakers (mostly Democrats) voting for it and 181 lawmakers (180 Republicans and one Independent) voting against it. Three Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-1st District, sided with Democrats in backing the bill, according to an official House roll call.

All nine Democratic members of Pennsylvania’s House delegation voted in favor of the bill. The remaining eight GOP members of the Keystone State delegation voted against the bill.

“Today I voted for The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 because it contains many much-needed reforms, and because we must move the legislative process and negotiations forward so we can begin to repair the social contract between police officers and the communities that they serve,” Fitzpatrick said in a statement released by his office on Thursday night. “It is important to note that, like Senator Tim Scott’s legislation in the Senate, this House legislation will serve as a launching point for bipartisan, bicameral negotiations and is still in need of modified bipartisan language before being considered in its final form; namely, a qualified immunity provision that needs to be drafted in a bipartisan manner.”

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., hailed the package on the House floor Thursday, saying it would “fundamentally transform the culture of policing to address systemic racism, curb police brutality and save lives.”

But the bill — passed one month after George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was killed while in police custody — is unlikely to become law.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.,  tried and failed to advance a modest GOP bill Wednesday and is not expected to take up the Democrats’ more comprehensive measure.

In a statement, U.S. Rep. Fred Keller, R-12th District, accused Democrats of drafting their bill “in secret,” without taking input from Republicans. He faulted Democrats for dismissing Republican amendments he thinks would have improved the bill.

“While Republicans put up significant and meaningful law enforcement improvement measures in the JUSTICE Act, which I co-sponsored, Democrats refused to even debate it or offer amendments to it.” Keller said. “By proceeding in a partisan manner with legislation that will continue the divide in this country over police practices, Congressional Democrats are once again behaving in a shamefully political manner on a serious topic of national importance. The American people deserve better.”

Taking to Twitter, U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-5th District, called on the Senate to act.

“Tonight, led by [U.S. Rep.] Karen Bass and the [Congressional] Black Caucus, the House passed the George Floyd Justice In Policing Act. Changing this system will take each and every one of us. This bill is a start. Now, we need the Senate to act,” Scanlon said.

President Donald Trump, meanwhile, threatened on Wednesday to veto the Democratic bill, arguing it would deter people from pursuing law enforcement careers, erode public safety and weaken relationships between police departments and communities.

House Republican Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., urged Democrats to instead “get on board” with the GOP bill, which he said “has a real shot at becoming law.”

The Democratic legislation would ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants at the federal level, bar racial profiling, limit the transfer of military-grade equipment to state and local law enforcement officials and make it easier to prosecute police misconduct in the courts by eliminating the “qualified immunity” doctrine that shields law enforcement officials from lawsuits, among other things.

The bill drew objections from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which called increased funding for law enforcement a non-starter. “The role of policing has to be smaller, more circumscribed and less funded with taxpayer dollars,” ACLU legislative counsel Kanya Bennett  said in a statement when the bill was introduced this month. 

House passage comes a day after Senate Democrats blocked a GOP bill authored by Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only Black Republican in the Senate GOP conference.

Scott’s bill would incentivize departments to increase the use of body cameras, improve training in de-escalation tactics and require that performance records be taken into greater account when making hiring decisions. It would also increase data collection on the use of force, weapon discharge and no-knock warrants, among other provisions.

Unlike the Democratic bill, it would not ban chokeholds or no-knock warrants at the federal level or make it easier for victims of police brutality to sue officers and seek damages. Nor would it bar racial and religious profiling or limit the transfer of military-grade equipment to state and local law enforcement officials.

McConnell tried to bring the bill to the floor Wednesday, but he fell five votes short of the 60 votes he needed to advance it.

Democrats and leading civil rights advocates called the Senate GOP bill “weak” and said it failed to live up to an historic moment in which diverse coalitions of protesters are taking to the streets to demand racial justice and equality in the wake of Floyd’s death.

Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis officer who kneeled on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, was fired and has been charged with second-degree murder.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.,  called the GOP bill “weak tea” on the Senate floor Wednesday. He cited a letter from civil rights groups who said the bill “falls woefully short of the comprehensive reform needed to address the current policing crisis and achieve meaningful law enforcement accountability.”

On the other side of the Capitol, Pelosi said the GOP bill is “inconsistent with a genuine belief that Black lives matter” and said she hopes passage of the Democratic bill will force the Senate to act. The Senate, she said, has the choice to either honor Floyd’s life or do nothing.

McConnell, meanwhile, painted Democrats with the do-nothing label. “Our Democratic colleagues tried to say with straight faces that they want the Senate to discuss police reform — while they blocked the Senate from discussing police reform,” he said Thursday.