George Floyd's brother urges U.S. lawmakers to seize the moment on police reform
'America is in pain, and she is crying. Can you hear her?' sister of slain officer asks
A U.S. congressional panel confronting racial injustice and police violence on Wednesday heard an impassioned plea from the younger brother of George Floyd not to let his death in Minneapolis police custody be in vain, lamenting that he "didn't deserve to die over $20."
Philonise Floyd, 42, was testifying before the House of Representatives judiciary committee along with 11 others at the first congressional hearing to examine the social and political undercurrents that have fuelled weeks of protests nationwide and overseas.
Floyd's death on May 25 after a policeman kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes was the latest in a string of killings of African-American men and women by police that have sparked anger on America's streets and fresh calls for reforms.
"Hold them accountable when they do something wrong," Philonise Floyd said. "Teach them what it means to treat people with empathy and respect. Teach them what necessary force is. Teach them that deadly force should be used rarely and only when life is at risk."
Floyd died while being detained near a convenience store where he allegedly used a counterfeit $20 US bill to buy cigarettes. The store clerk was the one to call police although the owner of the store, who was not present, later said his employees will no longer follow a state law requiring them to do so and expressed outrage over the police actions.
"He didn't deserve to die over $20," Philonise Floyd told the committee Wednesday. "I'm asking you, 'Is that what a Black man's worth, $20?'"
The judiciary panel is preparing to shepherd a sweeping package of legislation, aimed at combating police violence and racial injustice, to the House floor by July 4, and is expected to hold further hearings next week to prepare the bill for a full House vote.
WATCH | George Floyd's brother delivers plea for police reform:
"We must remember that he is not just a cause, a name to be chanted in the streets. He was a man. He had a family. He was known as a gentle giant. He had a rich life that was taken from him far too early, and we mourn his loss," House judiciary committee chair Jerrold Nadler said at the start of the hearing.
It's unclear how much, if any, agreement exists on the Democratic proposals from Republicans who control the Senate. As well, there could be pushback at the state or local level, where many decisions about policing resources are carried out.
Republican Tom McClintock of California stressed that there is no one-size-fits-all solution given the wide variety of jurisdictions served by police and sheriff's departments
Other witnesses included attorney Ben Crump — who has served as attorney for a number of victims' families, including Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery — and pastor Darrell Scott, a member of Republican President Donald Trump's National Diversity Coalition.
WATCH l What House Democrats are asking for:
Crump named several African Americans who have been killed in recent years as a result of police interactions and said "it's way past time we revise the role of police to become peacekeepers and community partners."
Crump said the use of force by officers should be commensurate with the threat faced, and he decried the so-called Blue Shield, a term used to describe a culture in which police colleagues are encouraged to remain silent over abuses within their ranks.
Scott testified he has been racially profiled and pulled over because of the colour of his skin, but he accused Democrats of being reactionary and taking advantage of Floyd's killing to advance pet causes.
Scott said the rates of violent crime in too many urban centres beg for an increase in police presence.
House Republicans, like Trump, have responded to protests largely by underscoring their support for police and accusing Democrats of wanting to cut off police funding altogether.
Republican calls defunding 'insanity'
Ohio Republican Jim Jordan condemned Floyd's death as a tragedy in his opening statement but stressed that the vast, vast majority of law enforcement officers are responsible, hardworking, heroic first responders."
Jordan characterized calls to defund the police as being "pure insanity."
He earned immediate praise from Trump on Twitter for his opening statement.
Great statement to Congress by <a href="https://twitter.com/Jim_Jordan?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Jim_Jordan</a> concerning Defunding (not!) our great Police. This Radical Left agenda is not going to happen. Sleepy Joe Biden will be (already is) pulled all the way Left. Many, like Minneapolis, want to close their Police Departments. Crazy!—@realDonaldTrump
The push for defunding is favoured by many progressive groups and activists but opposed by a number of top Democrats including presumptive nominee Joe Biden.
"We need to root out systemic racism across our laws and institutions, and we need to make sure Black Americans have a real shot to get ahead." Biden wrote in an opinion piece published in USA Today on Wednesday.
'Out of crisis comes opportunity'
While the two parties expressed difference in the scope of the problem of bad policing, there appeared to be bipartisan support for reviewing qualified immunity — the legal doctrine which prevents most police from being personally liable for injuries inflicted on citizens — as well as no-knock raids, which has led to deadly shootings.
Speaking from the White House, Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Trump considered Democratic proposals in the bill to reduce qualified immunity a "non-starter."
McEnany said the administration would be bringing forth its own police reform proposals very soon.
The Republican witness list included Angela Underwood Jacobs. Her brother, Dave Patrick Underwood, was a federal officer gunned down last week in Oakland, Calif., in circumstances that are still unclear. There have been no arrests yet in the fatal shooting.
"America is in pain, and she is crying. Can you hear her?" said Underwood Jacobs, who is Black.
Underwood Jacobs condemned looting and violent acts that have been an outgrowth of the nationwide protests and urged the lawmakers to invest in "economic justice" measures in education, jobs and housing that can lift the prospects of the disadvantaged.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo also said it was time to look at some of the root causes that drive criminal behaviour and that the time to enact meaningful reform was "long overdue."
"Out of crisis comes opportunity," he said.
Acevedo said his department answers 1.2 million calls annually and that they are disproportionately located in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.
Ron Davis, chair of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, criticized the Trump administration and its Justice Department for essentially doing away with civil rights mechanisms at its disposal to hold local police departments accountable for their behaviour, a practice the Barack Obama administration encouraged.
With files from CBC News