SOMERVILLE, NJ - Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-7th, sat at the end of the conference table in his District office on North Bridge Street and listened intently as 17-year-old Faith Wilson dissected a piece of legislation proposed by Black Lives Matters that seeks redress of social injustices, stricter oversight of local police departments and intense training to correct racial bias and other grievances.
The young woman, a North Plainfield resident who will attend Rutgers in the fall, is the coordinator for New Jersey's Black Lives Matter demonstration initiatives; she has been an active participant in several of the BLM demonstrations that have been held on the lawn of the Historic Somerset County Courthouse the past three weeks.
She took time yesterday to enjoy her virtual high school graduation, just hours after meeting with Malinowski. On Tuesday, she will continue networking on the phone and social media, hoping to put together a series of Black Lives Matter demonstrations at the state Capitol in Trenton.
"What I do is go on Instagram and reach out to groups I am familiar with in Newark, Trenton, New Brunswick, keeping in mind that everybody knows someone. I'm confident I can pull it off; I won't be able to attend all of them but I will be working on it all week," she said.
She is passionate about wanting to make change and Malinowski encouraged her to do just that.
"It is important to work on the local level," the congressman said. "I'm the top down; you have to be the bottom up. The more organized you are, the more doors are going to open for you."
Malinowski is a co-sponsor of the Justice in Policing Act, a sweeping piece of federal legislation composed by the Congressional Black Caucus; the bill mirrors many of the intentions included in the BREATHE bill proposed by BLM.
Malinowski is confident the House bill will survive the arduous process of compromise with a similar bill proposed in the US Senate, and potential involvement by the Trump administration.
"There is a bipartisan consensus," Malinowski said. "I don't think we'll have a better moment."
The momentum for change and readjustment advocated by Black Lives Matters and supported by the general public stems from the outcry over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died while in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25th as a white police officer held his knee against Floyd's neck.
Floyd died of suffocation, according to two autopsies. An IPhone video captured the arrest, with Floyd in handcuffs with his face to the ground, repeating several times, "I Can't Breathe." All four police officers involved in the incident were fired immediately; one police officer faces murder charges; the others face aiding and abetting charges.
The incident has set off both violent and peaceful demonstration across the country, and heightened the discourse over police brutality and social reform.
Seven peaceful demonstrations have been held at the Historic Somerset County Courthouse on East Main Street with marches through town over the past two weeks.
The Black Lives Matter plan of action presented to Malinowski by the young activist supports what the organization refers to as the BREATHE Bill, proposed legislation for consideration by all states, which has several key points:
- creates system of accountability for officers;
- ensures body cameras remain on at all times;
- holds officers accountable for excessive use of force;
- creates systems that weeds out racially-biased police officers;
- defunds/demilitarizes police;
- bans choke holds;
- imposes stricter qualifications for becoming a police officer.
Malinowski said many of the Black Lives Matter priorities are addressed in the Justice in Policing Act.
"The key thing is you want to build trust, have people working together with more oversight and more accountability," the congressman said.
The following is a fact sheet on the proposed federal legislation; Malinowski expects there will be a vote late this week:
The Justice in Policing Act is the first-ever bold, comprehensive approach to hold police accountable, end racial profiling, change the culture of law enforcement, empower our communities, and build trust between law enforcement and our communities by addressing systemic racism and bias to help save lives.
The Justice in Policing Act would: 1) establish a national standard for the operation of police departments; 2) mandate data collection on police encounters; 3) reprogram existing funds to invest in transformative community-based policing programs; and 4) streamline federal law to prosecute excessive force and establish independent prosecutors for police investigations.
The Justice in Policing Act of 2020 will: Work to End Racial & Religious Profiling
• Prohibits federal, state, and local law enforcement from racial, religious and discriminatory profiling.
• Mandates training on racial, religious, and discriminatory profiling for all law enforcement.
• Requires law enforcement to collect data on all investigatory activities.
Save Lives by Banning Choke holds & No-Knock Warrants
• Bans choke holds and carotid holds at the federal level and conditions law enforcement funding for state and local governments banning choke holds.
• Bans no-knock warrants in drug cases at the federal level and conditions law enforcement funding for state and local governments banning no-knock warrants at the local and state level.
• Requires that deadly force be used only as a last resort and requires officers to employ deescalation techniques first. Changes the standard to evaluate whether law enforcement use of force was justified from whether the force was “reasonable” to whether the force was “necessary.” Condition grants on state and local law enforcement agencies’ establishing the same use of force standard.
Limit Military Equipment on American Streets & Requires Body Cameras
• Limits the transfer of military-grade equipment to state and local law enforcement.
• Requires federal uniformed police officers to wear body cameras and requires state and local law enforcement to use existing federal funds to ensure the use of police body cameras.
• Requires marked federal police vehicles to have dashboard cameras.
Hold Police Accountable in Court
• Makes it easier to prosecute offending officers by amending the federal criminal statute to prosecute police misconduct.
• Enables individuals to recover damages in civil court when law enforcement officers violate their constitutional rights by eliminating qualified immunity for law enforcement.
Investigate Police Misconduct
• Improves the use of pattern and practice investigations at the federal level by granting the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division subpoena power and creates a grant program for state attorneys general to develop authority to conduct independent investigations into problematic police departments.
Empower Our Communities to Re-imagine Public Safety in an Equitable and Just Way
• This bill reinvests in our communities by supporting critical community-based programs to change the culture of law enforcement and empower our communities to re-imagine public safety in an equitable and just way.
• It establishes public safety innovation grants for community-based organizations to create local commissions and task forces to help communities to re-imagine and develop concrete, just and equitable public safety approaches. These local commissions would operate similar to President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
Change the Culture of Law Enforcement with Training to Build Integrity and Trust
• Requires the creation of law enforcement accreditation standard recommendations based on President Obama’s Taskforce on 21st Century policing.
• Creates law enforcement development and training programs to develop best practices.
• Studies the impact of laws or rules that allow a law enforcement officer to delay answers to questions posed by investigators of law enforcement misconduct.
• Enhances funding for pattern and practice discrimination investigations and programs managed by the DOJ Community Relations Service.
• Requires the Attorney General to collect data on investigatory actions and detentions by federal law enforcement agencies; the racial distribution of drug charges; the use of deadly force by and against law enforcement officers; as well as traffic and pedestrian stops and detentions.
• Establishes a DOJ task force to coordinate the investigation, prosecution and enforcement efforts of federal, state and local governments in cases related to law enforcement misconduct. Improve Transparency by Collecting Data on Police Misconduct and Use-of-Force
• Creates a nationwide police misconduct registry to prevent problematic officers who are fired or leave one agency, from moving to another jurisdiction without any accountability.
• Mandates state and local law enforcement agencies to report use of force data, disaggregated by race, sex, disability, religion, age.
Make Lynching a Federal Crime
• Makes it a federal crime to conspire to violate existing federal hate crimes laws.
Later in the day, after her graduation ceremony had concluded, Wilson took the time to reflect on her meeting with the congressman.
"I appreciate that he took time out of his busy scheduled to converse with a 17-year-old from a small town," she said.
"I was watching his body language, and he seemed receptive to the BREATHE bill proposal," she added. "His responses seemed really genuine. I feel like he would be the one person that would actually try to bring this change and make it happen."