Sewell: US needs ‘bold’ changes to policing

Published 3:42 pm Monday, June 8, 2020

U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-AL, held a virtual press conference Monday to discuss the recent rash of unrest that has spilled onto American streets following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police two weeks ago and efforts Congress is taking to address the concerns of those now flocking to protests all across the nation.

Sewell noted that the current demonstrations are not only in response to recent police slayings, but represents a demand for justice on the part of “countless black Americans across this country” who have been murdered by police.

Noting that police violence is only one way in which inequities can be seen in American society – the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed wide health disparities which, in Alabama, has black people making up 42 percent of all coronavirus cases while representing only 26 percent of the population – Sewell stated that police brutality is only a symptom of the larger problem of “systemic racism”

“For the last 400 years, our country has failed to live up to the ideals under which it was founded,” Sewell said. “The time is now to address these problems. I believe we need bold, transformational change…to alter policing practices.”

According to Sewell, lawmakers unveiled the Justice in Policing Act of 2020 on Monday, legislation which will take far-reaching steps to rein in police forces across the nation.

The bill, which is slated to be taken up in committee later this week, would hold bad cops accountable by amending a statute to prosecute misconduct for actions deemed “unnecessary,” such as the maneuver that ended Floyd’s life.

The bill would also alter qualified immunity laws, so that people are no longer barred from recovering damages when police officers violate the law, and require police departments to keep better records and data on cases of abuse.

“I think it is incumbent upon all of us…that we demand accountability,” Sewell said. “We have got to [get] accountability and transparency so we can restore confidence in our police departments across this nation.”

Further, the bill would outlaw no-knock warrants – such as the one that resulted in the death of Breonna Taylor, who was shot eight times by police serving such a warrant – and ban choke holds, require departments to utilize funds to ensure that body camera remain in use and make lynching a federal crime.

“It’s important to remember our nation has been fighting these systemic inequities since its inception,” Sewell said. “We need fundamental change to come to our communities.”

Sewell also touched on the recent push to defund police departments across the nation – while Sewell did not go so far as to support that notion, she did note that there should be funding increases to help marginalized communities, such as the homeless or those living in poverty, and said that  there is no “need to use more money to militarize police.”

Sewell hopes to see Republicans support the measure.

“I think that it’s critically important that my colleagues on the right join with us in acknowledging that what we’re seeing…is that people are fed up with the lack of accountability and the police brutality we are seeing on the streets of America, born out by video. We need to do better and we can do better and we must do better. I believe the protests have shown us that enough is enough.”

Sewell also weighed in on the removal of Confederate statues across the country, another side-effect of the ongoing turmoil in the streets, saying that removing such monuments, as well as cancelling days on celebration in honor of Confederate veterans, was a “no brainer.”

That, to me, is the least the State of Alabama and our state legislators should do,” Sewell said. “We should not be honoring people who have oppressed Americans.”

On top of the unrest in the streets, Sewell said, people are still battling the COVID-19 pandemic, which currently shows no sign of letting up – more than 110,000 people have thus far lost their lives to the disease in the U.S. and more than 670 have died in Alabama, which recently surpassed the 20,000 mark for confirmed cases.

Sewell laid much of the blame at the feet of U.S. President Donald Trump, who she said is “failing to provide leadership at the federal level” and has failed to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) and financial support to frontline workers.