WASHINGTON, D.C. [07/6/20]—Today, U.S. Senator Tina Smith (D-Minn.) announced new legislation to help root out systemic racism and the culture of violence that is killing Black, Brown and Indigenous people during her third Senate floor speech focused on finding solutions to address systemic racism and much-needed changes in policing.
Sen. Smith’s Supporting Innovation in Public Safety Act would help state, local, and Tribal governments reimagine policing in their communities by funding innovative projects to change how we deliver public safety.
Sen. Smith says that the bill will empower local communities to pursue projects that improve public safety through systemic change, rather than by increasing police budgets.
You can access video of Sen. Smith’s remarks here.
“I rise today to continue to lift up the voices of millions of Americans who are demanding policing reform as a necessary part of the path towards racial justice in this country. The challenges in defeating systemic racism can seem insurmountable, but there are clear next steps on the path forward. And we must start by transforming our policing system to root out systemic racism and the culture of violence that is killing Black and Brown and Indigenous people.
“My bill would empower local communities to pursue projects that improve public safety through systemic change, rather than by increasing police budgets. Some of this work is already underway – local jurisdictions are experimenting with new ways to provide mental health crisis response, address gun violence as a public health issue, or even enforce low-level traffic safety violations without involving armed police officers. I believe that those closest to the work know best what will work – and through generous grants, we can help local communities adopt new approaches to public safety that are tailored to their needs and circumstances. Robust evaluation of these innovative, community-led projects will help generate new data and new models of public safety and policing, and sow the seeds of broader progress.”
Floor Speech: Re-Imagining Policing and a New Path Forward
Senator Tina Smith
Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
M. President –
I rise today to continue to lift up the voices of millions of Americans who are demanding policing reform as a necessary step on the path towards racial justice in this country.
The challenges in defeating systemic racism can seem insurmountable, but there are clear next steps.
We need to start by transforming our policing system to root out systemic racism and the culture of violence that is killing Black and Brown and Indigenous people and people of color.
I want to talk today about four areas of this work that need our urgent attention. First, we need to bring justice, accountability, and change to police departments by passing the Justice in Policing Act. Next, we need to invest in new models of public safety by supporting community-led reform and innovation, and I’m asking the Senate to take up and pass my new bill to do just that. Third, we must end the criminalization of poverty, which happens when other social systems fail. And finally, we need to root out racism in our systems of education, health care, housing, and economic opportunity, so that everyone in this country can have the freedom and opportunity to build the lives they want.
In order to bring justice, accountability, and change to police departments around the country, we need to start by passing the Justice in Policing Act. Led by Senator Booker and Senator Harris, this bill is a comprehensive set of needed federal-level reforms to a system that is designed to shield police officers from accountability and consequences and denies justice to victims of police violence.
These reforms, like ending qualified immunity, establishing a national use of force, creating a registry of police misconduct, and banning dangerous practices like chokeholds and no-knock warrants, are long overdue.
Indeed, communities and activists have pushed for many of the reforms in this bill for decades. A few weeks ago, I spoke on the floor about the urgent need to pass this bill. Unfortunately, this critical legislation is still sitting on Leader McConnell’s desk. But I promise I will keep fighting until the Justice in Policing Act is signed into law.
Policing needs other changes too, like banning so-called “warrior” training, which encourages law enforcement officers to see the public as hostile enemies. We need to empower the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice to independently investigate police departments that systemically violate the constitutional rights of our communities.
We need to reform federal sentencing to repeal 1994 Crime Bill provisions, like mandatory minimums and draconian sentencing enhancements. And we need to prohibit police union contracts that create unfair barriers to effective investigations, civilian oversight, and holding police departments accountable to the communities they are sworn to serve.
In our work to transform policing, the second step we need to take at the federal level is to support local, community-led innovation in public safety.
Although Congress has a responsibility to establishing national standards for justice and accountability, federal-level change can only go so far. State, local, and Tribal governments are responsible for overseeing policing in their communities, and I believe that these communities know best what will work in their cities and towns. The federal government can play a catalytic role, by supporting and funding innovative anti-racist policing reform. With this in mind, today I introduced a bill, the Supporting Innovation in Public Safety Act, which would help state, local, and Tribal governments reimagine policing in their communities by funding innovative projects and best practices that will transform how we deliver public safety and other social services.
My bill would empower local communities to develop and implement projects to improve public safety through systemic change, not just by growing police budgets. There are great examples of innovation already happening – local jurisdictions are experimenting with new ways to provide mental health crisis response, address gun violence as a public health issue, and even enforce low-level traffic safety violations without involving armed police officers.
I have long believed that those closest to the work know best what will work – and through generous grants, we can help local communities adopt new approaches to public safety, tailored to their needs and unique circumstances.
Then we can do robust evaluation of these community-led projects, which will generate new data and new models of public safety and policing, and sow the seeds of progress and broad transformation.
The third thing we need to do, at all levels of government, is work together to stop criminalizing poverty, and using the criminal justice system as the solution for every social ill. For decades, we have dramatically underfunded efforts support for housing, mental health, and substance abuse. And then we criminalized the results of this lack of support. We ask Police departments to control behavior like loitering, trespassing, public intoxication, and public nuisances, all offenses that largely don’t threaten public safety. We put people in jail because they have a mental illness or lack a safe place to live. Poverty becomes the reason why people, especially people of color, get caught up in the criminal justice system. It’s time that we stop criminalizing poverty, and start investing in solutions to the root causes of social problems. We need to refocus policing on violence prevention and crisis response which connects people to the services they need.
A good place to start is by dramatically reforming cash bail, so that those who haven’t been convicted of a crime don’t remain in jail solely because they can’t afford bail. Almost 60% of the nearly 750,000 people currently in jail have not been convicted of any crime. They are in jail because they cannot afford bail. And the data tells us that this is yet another burden that falls disproportionately on communities of color.
Indeed, when we criminalize poverty, we facilitate the systemic racist harassment, surveillance, and control of Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities. That’s why we need to ban the use of quotas for law enforcement officers to enforce “broken windows” offenses. These offenses do not threaten public safety, and they are disproportionately enforced in communities of color. A recent New York Times investigation found that in many large police departments, serious violent crimes make up only about 1% of all calls for service. And many of those same departments are solving less than 30% of those serious crimes. We could actually improve public safety by devoting resources to combatting violent crime, rather than over-enforcing low-level offenses in communities of color.
Let’s think about what this means for marijuana offenses. The federal marijuana prohibition is a failed policy that contributes to mass incarceration and the racist over-policing of communities of color. White and Black people use drugs at roughly the same rate, but a Black person is almost four times as likely to be arrested for a marijuana-related offense. The federal Government is behind both states and public opinion. Forty-two states and the District of Colombia allow some type of marijuana use, despite the longtime federal prohibition.
It’s time to legalize marijuana, and we should do it in a practical, commonsense way that protects the health, safety, and civil rights of our communities. We need to take up and pass Senator Harris’s Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which I’m proud to cosponsor. The MORE Act would address the devastating impact on communities of color of the War on Drugs by expunging marijuana-related convictions and reinvesting in communities. Also, I recently introduced a bill, the Substance Regulation and Safety Act, which would ensure that marijuana is regulated to protect the health and safety of youth, consumers, and drivers, without replicating the racist enforcement patterns of current drug policy.
Finally, we need to recognize that racial justice isn’t only about policing and criminal justice reform. We need to root out racist policies built into our systems of housing, healthcare, education and economic opportunity.
The legacy of slavery, oppression, and discrimination is pervasive in these areas, and our communities bear the scars of these past crimes, even as new injuries accumulate. It’s why a Black or Brown child living in the neighborhood where George Floyd was murdered has fewer opportunities than a white child living just a few miles away.
The impact of generations of stolen labor, systemic violence, and exclusion from opportunity is revealed today in health disparities, achievement gaps, housing instability, and dramatic differences in wealth and wages between white people and people of color. These challenges are the crucial and unfinished work of racial justice in this country.
This means implementing anti-racist practices and policies, like ending the use of armed police officers in schools, eliminating discipline disparities, and shutting off the school to prison pipeline.
It means addressing the systematic exclusion of Black and Brown and Indigenous people from the wealth-building opportunity of homeownership.
It means tackling the root causes of racial health disparities, including environmental injustices and discrimination in health care.
And it means supporting economic opportunity for all by removing racist barriers to employment, entrepreneurship, and credit and capital.
The scale of the injustice can seem overwhelming, and the path can seem very long. These are some concrete steps we can take on that path, and they are necessary steps to fulfill our country’s promise of freedom and equality for all. Community leaders and activists are showing us that path forward, and it requires us to be courageous, humble, and at times, uncomfortable. But it is a path rooted in love, and in trust, and in hope.