WASHINGTON — Today, U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.), member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, questioned witnesses at a Judiciary Committee hearing titled “Police Use of Force and Community Relations.” Senator Coons is an original co-sponsor of the Justice in Policing Act, legislation introduced by Senators Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) that was discussed at this hearing.

Panelists included Ms. Vanita Gupta, President and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights, and Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff, the Franklin A. Thomas Professor in Policing Equity at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Co-Founder and CEO at Center for Policing Equity.

“As all of us know, the past three weeks since George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin with three of his colleagues not intervening has been both heartbreaking and the response nationally, in some ways, inspiring. It has ignited a conversation long overdue, and that requires that we act,” said Senator Coons.“This happens in the middle of two other crises, a global pandemic and an economic crisis, yet thousands have taken to the streets of every background and in every town in our country demanding action to advance justice and equality. The people are leading the way, and it’s up to us here in Congress to follow.”

When Senator Coons asked about a provision of the Justice in Policing Act that would provide subpoena power when conducting investigations into patterns of police misconduct, Ms. Gupta noted, “without that subpoena power, it really limited the ability of the Civil Rights Division to do its full job, and it can play a factor also sometimes, the police departments that may have the most -entrenched policies, you do not want it to play a factor in limiting where the Justice Department is going to go, but if you have got such an uncooperative situation, the lack of subpoena power really impedes progress.”

Senator Coons asked Dr. Goff “how adequately funding these social services would also reduce the burdens on police officers and hopefully lead to fewer deadly interactions between police and community members.” Dr. Goff replied, “the words ‘inner cities’ have become code for where it is difficult to police because it is dangerous. The places where it is less difficult, at least in our imagination, are the places where if there is a mental health crisis you can call a doctor or clinician. If there is somebody acting out of school, you can put them on time out, but they are not a threat physically to anybody else. When communities have those type of resources such that they do not need to call law enforcement for every darn thing, then policing is easier, you are asking less of police departments, and communities are safer.”

Full audio and video available here. A transcript is below.

Sen. Coons: As all of us know, the past three weeks since George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin with three of his colleagues not intervening has been both heartbreaking and the response nationally, in some ways, inspiring. It has ignited a conversation long overdue, and that requires that we act. This happens in the middle of two other crises, a global pandemic and an economic crisis, yet thousands have taken to the streets of every background and in every town in our country demanding action to advance justice and equality. The people are leading the way, and it’s up to us here in Congress to follow. In the weeks since, Rayshard Brooks’ name has been added to a too-long list. So let me ask if I could just a few questions of Ms. Gupta and Dr. Goff. We have not heard as much from Dr. Goff as perhaps we should, so I’m just giving him a quick warning. I’m about to ask him a question remotely. Ms. Gupta, on the line of questioning my two previous senators have pursued about these pattern and practice investigations, ones that look beyond just a focus on a single bad apple officer but look at the way an entire agency is being run, the way a whole department is operating and its consequences. I’ll remind you, Officer Chauvin had 18 prior investigations for misconduct as an officer and was I believe was a training officer at the time of the murder of George Floyd. I was proud to join my colleagues as a cosponsor of the Justice and Policing Act. One of the things it would give to the Department of Justice is subpoena power when conducting investigations into patterns of police misconduct. Why would that subpoena power be an important and useful tool, and how do you think pattern and practice investigations can actually ultimately advance public safety? 

Ms. Gupta: Sure, Senator, if I could just as a moment of privilege, at some point would like to enter into the record the ways in which the study that Senator Cruz mentioned has been debunked and several others that actually show the effectiveness of consent decrees, including a very recent one, so I just wanted to state that. But on these consent decrees, the subpoena power is something that the Justice Department Civil Rights Division does not have. It was a real problem, for instance, when the Justice Department opened up a pattern or practice investigation into the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department with Sheriff Joe Arpaio. We had their situation where the sheriff was unwilling to cooperate with the request for documents, the request for all kinds of information. That is just typical around these kinds of investigations. It took at least a couple of years for the Justice Department to actually be able to litigate and win a judgment in court that gave us, that gave the Justice Department access. And meanwhile, of course, the unconstitutional policing around racial profiling and national origin discrimination continued. And so, without that subpoena power, it really limited the ability of the Civil Rights Division to do its full job, and it can play a factor also sometimes, the police departments that may have the most ­entrenched policies, you do not want it to play a factor in limiting where the Justice Department is going to go, but if you have got such an uncooperative situation, the lack of subpoena power really impedes progress.

Sen. Coons: Thank you, Ms. Gupta. Dr. Goff, if I could, literally to follow up on what we were just talking about there. I am also a cosponsor of the End Racial and Religious Profiling Act which is incorporated into the Justice in Policing Act. That bill would prohibit racial profiling and require data collection. Could you just briefly explain how we could use that data on stop, searches and arrests to help achieve more equitable and more effective policing?

Dr. Goff: Absolutely. The way that we would want to go about doing is we do not want to just look at comparisons of rates. It is not enough to say that black people are stopped more often; it is not enough to say that black people have force used on them more often because we do not know the appropriate point of comparison should be. Senator Cornyn asked earlier how much of this is really about poverty. There are times when people say that, and they are not asking in good faith. I take the senator to be asking in good faith, and scientists have to ask that question as well. Which means we have to take into account crime rates and poverty rates before we are able to make a determination that police have additional responsibilities above that. The robust analyses from the scientific community are clear. Crime and poverty are not sufficient to explain racial disparities and police stops or police use of force. They are a part of the issue. They are not the whole issue, so if there were national data collection on these elements, it would be possible for both federal scientists and for the broader community of science to get a much better sense of how large is the actual level of bias in these behaviors and where can we be targeting them? That is an absolutely essential piece of the equation if we are going to solve these problems. 

Sen. Coons: Dr. Goff, as we have heard from the mayor, from Mr. Merritt, police are often our first responders to a host of problems that represent broader failings of our social safety net: lack of affordable housing, substance abuse treatment, mental health care. Can you just explain how adequately funding these social services would also reduce the burdens on police officers and hopefully lead to fewer deadly interactions between police and community members? 

Dr. Goff: Right, so there are places in the United States where we do not think about policing as nearly a difficult of a job as we do in our inner cities. In fact, the words “inner cities” have become code for where it is difficult to police because it is dangerous. The places where it is less difficult, at least in our imagination, are the places where if there is a mental health crisis you can call a doctor or a clinician. If there is somebody acting out of school, you can put them on time out, but they are not a threat physically to anybody else. When communities have those type of resources such that they do not need to call law enforcement for every darn thing, then policing is easier, you are asking less of police departments, and communities are safer. Wherever you do not have to call police, it’s safer. The code word for this in most places is “the suburbs,” and law enforcement would very much like to be having instances even in the inner cities, of doing the same thing. Where the communities that are most distressed and most vulnerable have the resources so they have to call less. If we invest in public mental health, then those resources will be there instead of law enforcement having to respond, and so forth and so on for each of those social ills. 

Sen. Coons: Thank you, Dr. Goff, Ms. Gupta, and our whole panel for your powerful testimony today.