WASHINGTON — As momentum builds on Capitol Hill to change legal guidelines for use of force by police officers, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham told his colleagues Tuesday that it will be important for Republicans and Democrats to "find common ground" if they are going to get any legislation across the finish line.
Graham, R-S.C., convened the first of what he said will be a series of hearings in the Senate Judiciary committee over the coming months about law enforcement tactics and the relationship between police and the communities they oversee.
Protests erupted around the country in recent weeks following the death of George Floyd, a black man who said he could not breathe as a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes.
But Graham noted that systemic issues in policing existed for years before President Donald Trump took office without major legislative changes.
"This is a tough time for the country," Graham said. "Trump's a handful, but we're not here because of the failings of one administration, we're here because of the failing of society. Most of the things we want to do now could have been done eight years ago. So let's do the things now that make sense."
The hearing came a day before Graham's South Carolina colleague, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, was expected to unveil the Senate GOP's police reform bill and served as something of an expert briefing on the issues that lawmakers will be debating in the weeks ahead.
Criminal justice professors, civil rights lawyers and city officials spoke to the panel in a more than four-hour hearing about a wide range of issues fraying police-community relations and potential fixes, including stricter hiring and training, creating registries of police misconduct and investing in other community resources.
Scott, the only black Republican in the Senate and one of only three black senators overall, has emerged as the party's leading authority on the issue in recent weeks, in part due to what he has described as his own experiences facing racial profiling, including getting pulled over multiple times for frivolous reasons.
"Tim and I have completely different experiences with the cops," Graham said. "It is now time to have an honest conversation about why is that. How can it be that if you're a United States senator from South Carolina and you're black, you get stopped five or six times, and if you're white, you never get stopped?"
Other lawmakers on the panel also remarked on the contrast between Graham and Scott's interactions with police.
“What does it say about a nation where two Senators from the same state have very different — wildly different — experiences with law enforcement right here?” said U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.
Republican senators previewing Scott's bill said it would likely include a ban on chokeholds, a duty for officers to intervene against excessive force and body cameras, among other measures.
But Democrats have put forward their own proposals that include more sweeping overhauls unlikely to be included in the Republican bill, such as reducing qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that protects police officers from lawsuits, and restricting the use of no-knock warrants.
"It's my goal to reconcile these proposals to the extent possible and come up with solutions," Graham said.
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, told The Post and Courier he is also hoping to include a measure in the policing bills to close the "Charleston loophole" by extending the length of time for background checks on guns.
"I am going to make the try to have this loophole addressed in this bill, if there’s an opening to do so," Clyburn said Tuesday. "It may be possible in this climate to get it included in the negotiated bill."
A background check was pending for white supremacist Dylann Roof after he purchased a .45-caliber handgun months before shooting nine black parishioners at Charleston's Emanuel AME church in 2015. But because it took more than three days to complete, the firearms dealer let him walk away with the gun.
The sequence has been called the “Charleston loophole” by lawmakers and gun reform advocates. A bill to close the loophole passed the Democrat-controlled House in February 2019 on a 228-198 vote but has languished in the Republican-controlled Senate.