Should a cop killing a civilian become a federal crime, instead of just a state crime?
Currently, if a person is killed by the police, the option to bring criminal charges against the officer is up to the discretion of the U.S. state where the death occurred. The federal government, acting through the Justice Department, can only initiate a civil rights case in such matters.
And even then, the department sometimes doesn’t. Most prominently in recent years was the Trump Administration’s July decision not to initiate a case against New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo, after his killing of Eric Garner was filmed and went viral.
What the bill does
The Police Accountability Act would make it a federal crime for a police officer to kill somebody. This would give the Justice Department authority to bring charges against a police officer for killing somebody, in the absence of a U.S. state taking such action.
It was introduced in the House on February 6 as bill number H.R. 5777, by Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA4).
What supporters say
Supporters argue the bill prevents the few bad apples among law enforcement from spoiling the whole barrel by escaping legal repercussions.
“There is no silver bullet to fix our broken criminal justice system,” Rep. Johnson said in a press release. “Taken together, these three bills [Rep. Johnson introduced it simultaneously with two other pieces of legislation would make critical steps to ensure a more thorough review of cases involving law enforcement officers, keep bad officers off the streets and begin the necessary healing process to regain the trust and respect between communities and the police.”
“I understand law enforcement officers have difficult jobs, and as a former magistrate judge I have great respect for all our law enforcement officials,” Rep. Johnson continued. “But law enforcement officers are not above the law, and should be held accountable like anyone else.”
What opponents say
Opponents counter that the bill is redundant.
“Currently, any crime committed by a state or local police officer is already federally punishable and prosecutable if the officer violated an individual’s federal constitutional rights. As this obviously includes homicides, there is no need for this legislation,” the National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO) wrote in an issue brief. “We do not need to create duplicative federal law to produce witch hunts against officers whose use of deadly force was justifiable under law simply because they used deadly force.”
Opponents also counter that a lawsuit may not be the most effective avenue for change.
“For the most part, rather than filing lawsuits, the DOJ [Department of Justice] prefers to use the threat of litigation to pressure targets of an investigation to agree to a negotiated settlement,” Kami N. Chavis and Conor Degnan wrote for the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy. “For many years, the focus on negotiated settlements saved both time and money and allowed the DOJ to review more departments.”
Odds of passage
The bill has attracted 16 cosponsors, all Democrats. It awaits a potential vote in the House Judiciary Committee. Odds of passage are low in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Rep. Johnson introduced previous versions of the bill in 2014, in 2015, and in 2017. Those versions attracted three, 17, and eight cosponsors respectively — all Democrats. None received a vote in the House, which that whole time was controlled by Republicans.