Tim Scott’s tough sell: Forcing states to report on police shootings

US Sen Tim Scott
US Sen Tim Scott AP

Local law enforcement agencies are not required to record and report to the federal government about cases where police officers fatally shoot civilians.

Sen. Tim Scott wants to change that. But the South Carolina Republican has struggled to find momentum for legislation that would require such data collection, even after a string of high-profile police shootings over the past several years.

Scott first introduced the “Walter Scott Notification Act” in 2015, inspired by and named for the unarmed black man in North Charleston, South Carolina, who was shot and killed that year by a police officer who later pleaded guilty to federal charges and was sentenced to 20 years in jail. Walter Scott was of no relation to the lawmaker, the only black Republican in the Senate.

The measure would require any state that receives federal law enforcement grants to submit annual reports to the attorney general about instances involving police shootings that resulted in death.

The reports would have to include a long set of data points: The ages and races of the individuals involved, a description of the event, an account of what disciplinary or legal actions followed and whether the victim was armed or had mental health issues. Failure to submit this information could result in a withholding of 10 percent of federal law enforcement grant funding.

Scott was lobbying Tuesday to get a vote on his bill by trying to attach it to a larger overhaul of the criminal justice system that passed that evening. He was ultimately unsuccessful, running up against resistance and limited time in which to change people’s minds.

James Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police — the largest police union in the country — said his organization doesn’t support legislation that would, like Scott’s bill, threaten federal funding as an enforcement mechanism.

Pasco said Scott’s bill should also mandate reports of attacks on police officers by civilians alongside reports of attacks by police officers on civilians.

“We are not lobbying for mandatory reporting at this time,” Pasco added, “but if legislation is going to be enacted, we believe it should be mandatory and it should be incumbent upon the cities to report not only allegations of attacks by police officers on citizens, but attacks by citizens on police officers.”

Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee who opposes the criminal justice overhaul bill, was also wary of Scott’s proposal.

“I think that cops are innocent until proven guilty. I don’t believe they are guilty until they are proven innocent,” he said.

Kennedy also suggested Scott’s legislation was redundant: “Anytime you discharge a firearm, the police make you fill out a report and they do an investigation.”

But a comprehensive, centralized federal database of such episodes does not currently exist.

The U.S. attorney general has been required to collect and report on police use-of-force data since 1994, but police agencies are not required to submit information.

The 1994 law requiring such collection, moreover, says that the data “may not contain any information that may reveal the identity of the victim or any law enforcement officer.”

Starting in January, the Federal Bureau of Investigation will launch a national program to collect police use-of-force data from around the country including more detailed information about specific events, but participation will continue to be entirely voluntarily.

In an interview with McClatchy on Tuesday, Scott said he could not understand why mandating the reporting of use-of-force data was such a hard sell.

While the outgoing chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is a co-sponsor of the legislation, he never brought it up for a debate. And Scott said former Attorney General Jeff Sessions also “was not as open to it when we discussed it (his) early days” at the Justice Department.

“I just think people don’t see the wisdom of collecting the data,” Scott said. “I don’t fully appreciate why. I’m a pro-law enforcement guy, have been my entire career in politics and before that as well. It just seems like common sense to me you’d want to know what’s going on.”

He said he didn’t think anyone saw the bill as anti-law enforcement, but suggested educating his colleagues was the biggest challenge.

“One of the response I get most often is we are already getting these numbers to the FBI and it ain’t accurate, that the FBI has a collection process that makes this redundant or unnecessary,” Scott explained.

Scott has played a key role in drafting a compromise bill to overhaul the criminal justice system and putting together a shaky coalition of support among members of both parties.

It was clear by early Tuesday evening Scott could not use his influence in this process as leverage for getting a vote on his amendment — or if he was even trying to do so, given that any controversial policy proposal could upset the delicate majority that voted for the larger bill.

“I think I’m cautious in my optimism,” Scott said.

The amendment did not come up for a vote.

Emma Dumain covers Congress and congressional leadership for McClatchy DC and the company’s newspapers around the country. She previously covered South Carolina politics out of McClatchy’s Washington bureau. From 2008-2015, Dumain was a congressional reporter for CQ Roll Call.