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The BREATHE Act Is A Counterproposal To Justice In Policing Act


A bill that passed the House of Representatives responds to demands for police reform. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is a federal measure. It creates a national registry of cops with unclean records. It also offers money as incentives to local police that improve training or ban chokeholds. Mainstream civil rights groups support this bill. Yet the offer of more money for police is a big reason that a group called the Movement for Black Lives opposes the bill.

GINA CLAYTON-JOHNSON: The Justice in Policing Act is a bill that entrenches over $900 million of funding to policing and incarceration.

INSKEEP: Gina Clayton-Johnson is executive director of the Essie Justice Group. She is one of the architects of the counterproposal called the BREATHE Act. Now, comparing her bill to the one that passed gives us a snapshot of the debate on the left over policing. She argues that the proposals in the House bill have been tried already.

CLAYTON-JOHNSON: Body cameras and police training, you know, these are things that we know actually do very little to keep Black people safe at the hands of police violence.

INSKEEP: You mean they've been tried on the state and local level, and they just haven't made a difference in your view?

CLAYTON-JOHNSON: You know, I'm thinking about things like the chokehold ban. This is something that was in effect in New York when Eric Garner died. I think we believe that there are a multitude of ways, of evidence-based ways, to approach this issue that do work.

INSKEEP: As I looked at the bill that passed the House and looked at your proposal, I thought about them as different in this way. The bill that passed the House seems to say, we offer you more resources if you do the right thing, incentives for banning chokeholds, for example. But I think your approach is that police should just get less money. Is that a fair summary?

CLAYTON-JOHNSON: If you've only read Section 1 of four.


INSKEEP: I know there's more. I know there's more, which we're going to discuss.


INSKEEP: But you start there, that police are just - they're over-resourced.

CLAYTON-JOHNSON: We do. We do. No, it's fair. It's fair to say that. We start there because it's really important for us to understand that we didn't just accidentally find our way into being a world - the world's leader in incarcerating people, right? We didn't just find our way into accidentally having this heinous and horrendous and horrific crisis of police killing in Black communities and of Black people. We funded our way there. And so what we do actually is, yes, absolutely, we rolled back the resources that have gone to underwriting mass incarceration in our criminal legal system. But we also provide grants and incentives. And the majority, over 90% of this bill, is actually grant funding.

INSKEEP: What is a practical way that a neighborhood that statistically is unsafe could be safer with fewer police patrolling it?

CLAYTON-JOHNSON: Sure. So we provide incentives, so federal dollars, for localities to get rid of their money bail practices, for example. To eradicate a money bail paradigm would mean that we would be addressing a huge issue of economic disparity that is impacting Black people acutely and particularly Black women. And what we know is that economic distress is a contributor to what leads people to the kinds of things that end up being criminalized and land people behind bars. And so getting rid of something like a money bail program would allow a state to be competitive for a grant, which then they could use to invest in affordable housing or mental health programs for low-income women or, you know, a variety of things. We actually provide a huge number of possibilities and for localities to describe and prescribe what it is that they would like the investments to be as long as they are non-carceral and non-punitive.

INSKEEP: There are people who say defund the police. And what they mean is reduce the police budget. There are people who say abolish the police. Where are you on that?

CLAYTON-JOHNSON: The BREATHE Act absolutely provides for avenues towards safety that rely entirely on community care infrastructure. You know, I was just reading about 30% of incarcerated people in California have a mental health diagnosis. We have a huge issue in which we're not treating people. We are criminalizing them. And so if we begin to imagine a world in which we deal with underlying issues that people in need have, we could actually find our way towards the safety outcomes that we are looking for.

INSKEEP: Does the world in which you imagine still include a role for conventional, old-style police?

CLAYTON-JOHNSON: For me, personally, I am fighting for a world in which we can make policing obsolete. And I believe that that is possible. And I know that it will take maybe years to get there.

INSKEEP: Gina Clayton-Johnson is the executive director of the Essie Justice Group. Thanks so much.

CLAYTON-JOHNSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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