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House Democrats pass public safety bills after striking last-minute deal

ABC News logo ABC News 9/23/2022
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House Democrats on Thursday managed to chalk up another major legislative win before the midterm elections, approving a long-delayed package of changes to policing and public safety.

Moderate and progressive Democrats hammered out a deal on Wednesday after frenetic negotiations -- and on one of the House's last working days before entering a recess that will stretch past the November races.

This new package of bills would fund recruitment and training for police departments across the country and includes new language on police accountability.

The House narrowly cleared a procedural vote on Thursday after a standstill on the floor after some progressive Democrats objected to terms of the deal. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., voted "present" so her vote wouldn't count against Democrats in a planned move, which resulted in a 216-215-1 vote.

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Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar, one of of the key negotiators of the package, told reporters they had to make some last-minute updates to one of the pieces of legislation.

"There's a lot of process, conversations that had to be had to be engaged in," Omar said. "But we were ultimately hopefully successful. And I'm really proud of everyone for devoting as much energy to making sure our colleagues are able to pass their legislation."

The four bills passed by slightly wider margins later Thursday afternoon. The package now heads to the Senate, where its fate is unclear.

To address mental health crises, one of the bills, sponsored by California Rep. Katie Porter, would create a grant program for departments to hire and dispatch mental health professionals -- not law enforcement officers -- in instances involving individuals with behavioral health needs.

The package also includes a bill from Nevada Rep. Steven Horsford that would direct the Justice Department to establish a grant program for local agencies to hire detectives and victim services personnel to investigate shootings.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer speaks during a press conference on September 21, 2022 in Washington, DC. © Samuel Corum/Getty Images House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer speaks during a press conference on September 21, 2022 in Washington, DC.

The legislation targets funding to smaller police departments with fewer than 200 officers; gives the DOJ the ability to preference applicants that use the funds for officer training to improve community safety and accountability; and allows the funding to not only go to officer pay and training but also be used for data collection regarding police and community safety.

Progressives have said they were particularly concerned about providing more grants and funds to police departments without including requirements on accountability for officers' actions.

Moderates have long insisted on bringing forth public safety bills as a way to fire back at Republican attacks that blame Democrats for rising crime. Polls show some key Senate races tightening, with GOP candidates pressing their opponents on the issue -- often citing advocates' "defund the police" slogan, despite Democratic leaders rejecting such messages.

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While Republicans seek to paint Democrats as soft on crime, President Joe Biden has slammed members of the GOP both for denouncing federal law enforcement after an FBI search of former President Donald Trump's residence last month and for expressing support for those who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Biden and Democrats pushed in the 2020 cycle for broader policing reform, including changes to the standard to prosecute police misconduct and qualified immunity, after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis.

Rep. Ilhan Omar speaks to reporters during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Nov. 30, 2021. © J. Scott Applewhite/AP, FILE Rep. Ilhan Omar speaks to reporters during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Nov. 30, 2021.

But Senate Democrats ultimately failed to overcome Republican opposition to a major piece of legislation named after Floyd. Instead, Biden signed two smaller executive orders on policing earlier this year, on the second anniversary of Floyd's death.

Omar, who represents the district in Minnesota where Floyd was killed, was one of the harshest critics of the ongoing police reform efforts but gave her approval on Wednesday.

The package, she said, is "evidence-based, holistic legislation that addresses public safety and unifies the Democratic Caucus."

"After significant, deliberate negotiations, we are pleased to share that ... the bill will include a number of reforms to ensure funds are used to support smaller police departments, to invest in de-escalation and other important training, and for data collection and mental health," Omar and Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said in a joint statement.

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