Biden White House puts its police oversight commission on ice

Biden White House puts its police oversight commission on iceApril 12, 2021

The White House is putting the creation of a national police oversight commission on hold, nixing a campaign pledge made by President Joe Biden to establish one within his first 100 days.

“Based on close, respectful consultation with partners in the civil rights community, the administration made the considered judgment that a police commission, at this time, would not be the most effective way to deliver on our top priority in this area, which is to sign the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act into law,” Susan Rice, director of the Domestic Policy Council, said in a statement to POLITICO.

Before coming to the decision, the White House said it consulted with national civil rights organizations and police unions. Both entities made clear to the administration that they thought a commission was not necessary and likely redundant.

Rice said that the administration “strongly” supports the police reform bill named after Floyd, who was killed last May after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pinned his knee to Floyd’s neck for seven minutes and 46 seconds. Chauvin’s murder trial for the death of Floyd is currently ongoing.

The White House “is working with Congress to swiftly enact meaningful police reform that brings profound, urgently needed change,” Rice said.

The decision to shelve the commission underscores the ways in which campaign promises can clash with the realities of governing and potentially trip up a president’s agenda. Biden first promised to set up an oversight commission last June, roughly one week after Floyd’s killing. As numerous cities staged mass protests against the killing of Black people, Biden called for reforms to policing, including a national database of police misconduct and a ban on the use of chokeholds. But he refrained from endorsing the biggest policy demands from the Black Lives Matter movement on issues like police liability, and declined to embrace their call to “defund the police” and reallocate funding to social programs and community priorities.

“We need each and every police department in the country to undertake a comprehensive review of their hiring, their training and their de-escalation practices,” Biden said in a Philadelphia speech addressing the protests across the country last summer. “And the federal government should give the cities and states the tools and resources they need to implement reforms.”

When it was announced, members of the Black Lives Matter movement and civil rights leaders expressed skepticism about the value of another commission, questioning what impact it could have. And after Biden entered office, civil rights organizations, including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told the administration that another commission wasn’t needed given the decades’ worth of research already compiled on policing practices.

“As the ongoing trial in the death of George Floyd makes clear, transforming policing in America is one of the most urgent crises facing the nation today,” Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference, said in a statement to POLITICO. “We also agree with the White House decision to forgo the creation of a commission to study the problem.”

“This matter is much too urgent for delay, and Congress is by far the more appropriate venue to consider changes in law regarding police accountability,” Henderson added.

Civil rights advocates were especially concerned that a commission would be used as an excuse by lawmakers in the Senate — both Republicans and skeptical Democrats — to stall action on the House-passed police reform bill. Lawmakers, the fear was, might cite the need to see the commission’s completed work as a reason to hold off on supporting police reform legislation.

There was clear “commission fatigue” in all the meetings the White House held with civil rights groups and police unions, said a source familiar with the administration’s efforts.

Police union representatives themselves were indifferent about another panel, though they made clear to the White House that if one was established, they wanted a seat at the table.

Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, said he and the president of the organization met virtually with Rice shortly after Biden took office. During that meeting, the White House was still planning to form the commission but Pasco said he shared with Rice that the FOP didn’t think another panel was imperative.

“Our concern wasn’t that they would or would not have one. Our concern was that we would have a voice and we were assured that we would,” Pasco said.

Pasco noted that former President Barack Obama had established his own police commission, which came up with “a plethora of recommendations, the majority of which we agreed with and virtually nothing had happened with those.”

“So,” he added, “a good starting point would be to take the recommendations of the most recent previous commission and try to implement them.”

The Obama-era task force, which issued a 120-page report in 2015, did not embrace two major activist demands of the time: requiring body cameras for all police and making federal funds to local police departments contingent on racial bias training.

Former President Donald Trump also launched a commission, though it was composed entirely of law enforcement. The commission’s report defended qualified immunity, a judicial doctrine that shields police from lawsuits over civil rights violations brought by victims of police violence or their families. A federal judge in Washington also found that the Trump commission violated federal law on advisory committees by not having a balanced advisory board.

Those past commissions “resulted in no policy change,” Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, said in an interview.

“Without full authority to hold police officers and agencies accountable,” Johnson said, a commission “is more window dressing unless the purpose of the commission was to build the public support for passage of the George Floyd act in the Senate.”

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