SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, said time is running out to get his police reform bill, drafted in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, through Congress in an election year and warned it would be “bad news for communities of color to wait,” during a webinar sponsored by former Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch’s foundation.
“I’ve called it the ‘Lazarus moment.’ There is a chance that (it) will rise from the dead in the next few days. If it doesn’t happen between now and next week, it probably does not happen before the election,” Scott, the Republican Party’s only Black senator, said during a virtual panel discussion on “Race and Civility in America.”
Senate Democrats were able to block Scott’s Justice Act from reaching the floor of the GOP-controlled Senate in late June, just a day before the House, lead by majority Democrats, passed what’s seen as more sweeping police reform.
Both attempts at addressing police brutality against minorities have stalled. They follow the nationwide protests over the death of a Black man, George Floyd, in Minnesota after a police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes during a Memorial Day arrest.
But Scott, speaking from his Senate office in Washington, said he’s hopeful common ground can still be found, noting his bill would deliver much of what is being sought, such as banning the use of choke holds by federal law enforcement and compelling local jurisdictions to do the same through the use of grants.
“If we don’t, then they’ll wait until after the election, hoping that the Democrats win,” he said, and have full control of Congress and the White House “to develop a different kind of bill. I think that’s bad news for communities of color to wait when you can get two-thirds or maybe even 70%, right now.”
Scott, who had to leave the hourlong panel discussion midway through to vote, said he has been talking about moving his bill forward for the past few weeks with the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Karen Bass, D-California, and others, including the families of victims of deadly encounters with police.
Part of the reason negotiations on his bill are continuing is that “the families themselves see the merit in engaging with both sides because it’s not a Republican or a Democrat issue. This is an issue about restoring confidence in institutions of power in this country,” the senator said.
For members of Congress, he said, “the question is, can we get that two-thirds that we agree on past the finish line or is the desire to campaign on police reform more important than solving it while we can? If you win, you can make it better, if that’s your perspective.”
Asked about keeping partisanship out of discussions about race, Scott said he set aside his personal reaction to his bill being “demonized” by opponents. Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, apologized to Scott last month after cautioning against passing “token” police reform in a floor speech.
Scott did not refer to Durbin by name Wednesday but said his bill had been labeled “token legislation. They said that with great clarity. I sat down with that person even after the comments because I’m more interested in the outcome for the communities that are suffering than I am with whether or not he hurts my feelings or not.”
The South Carolina senator spoke of growing up in poverty and believing no one from his neighborhood would amount to much until meeting the manager of a fast-food restaurant who became a mentor and changed his life. Still, as recently as this year, he said he’s been stopped by police while driving based on the color of his skin.
“It hurts. It hurts to have the spotlight on you for something that you didn’t do that you’re being accused of doing, When you know you’re right or that you are innocent, to be labeled as guilty is belittling, sometimes devaluing and even to the point that some have experienced — I have not — dehumanizing,” Scott said.
“It really does leave a stain on your soul.”
He referred to advice given to him shortly after he took office by the late civil rights icon and longtime congressman, John Lewis, that “no matter what happens to you in life, do not let it make you bitter ... make it better. Don’t get bitter. Make it better for other people.”
Pastor Corey J. Hodges of The Point Church in Salt Lake City said faith is a “huge” part of dealing with issues of race.
“Those guiding spiritual principles that we have to call forward in all of our lives are part of this process, particularly in the lives of young African-American men, who often, so many times, have forces that are working against them, whether systemic or otherwise,” Hodges said.
Another panel participant, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, agreed with the senator that body cameras for law enforcement are essential. Scott said they can have a “significant impact” on the behavior of both officers and suspects.
Reyes said law enforcement supports the use of body cameras, but emphasized if they are mandated, they must also be funded. The attorney general also said rather than talk of defunding police, there should be more money for programs such as Utah’s mobile crisis units that dispatch mental health professionals along with officers.
Jeanetta Williams, the longtime leader of the NAACP Salt Lake City branch and of the organization’s Utah, Idaho and Nevada conference, spoke of the need to work with law enforcement. The NAACP signed an agreement in June with the Utah Fraternal Order of Police “to work together to bridge the community divide.”
Williams said the organization is “not asking for the defunding of police. I think that’s the wrong direction to go. I think the right direction is to make sure we can sit at the table and talk to law enforcement, as we are doing in Utah.”
Nikki Walker, Domo director of brand experience and community engagement, said there are people who still don’t see the magnitude of the problem with race relations.
“As a Black woman, I am indelibly affected by racism and racist institutions,” she said, but some of her friends and colleagues “have never experienced that. They don’t understand what the big deal is. It’s a shame we are still here in this, ‘Well, what’s the big deal’ space.”
Walker said while it was “lovely” for Domo, a Utah-based business analytics platform, to put up a “Black Lives Matter” billboard in Draper, it’s more important to take action, such as the company’s recent signing of a “parity pledge” to recruit and promote people of color.
Sara Jones, founder and CEO of InclusionPro, a human resources company in Utah that provides diversity training, said “racism shows up everywhere” but there is a “massive learning shift” happening among corporate executives.
While workplace racism may not be as visible as police brutality, Jones said those executives “don’t need body cameras to believe what’s going on in the workplace. They are spending the time to listen and really believe the experiences that their employees are having.”
Before leaving the panel, Scott praised the chairman of the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation, Zions Bank President and CEO Scott Anderson, for his willingness to listen to what needs to be done to ensure diversity, saying it’s powerful to “have corporate America reach out and say, ‘Help me understand.’”
Anderson said the senator spoke to the bank’s board, which has taken steps to ensure “no one is left out” by working to advance two principles, that all Americans must have equal opportunities to prosper and that economic inclusion is essential to creating those opportunities.