SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — Congresswoman Cheri Bustos (D-IL 17th District) joined Capitol Connection this week to discuss the national push for police reform and accountability, and the Black Lives Matter movement. Rep. Bustos also chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
You can read her full transcript from the extended interview below:
Mark Maxwell: This week the House and Senate [is] debating how hard Congress should crack down on police following the death of George Floyd. Some of those controversial topics up for debate: should officers have to knock when executing a warrant? Or should officers ever be allowed to use a choke hold even when they themselves fear for their lives? Or should the law provide a shield of qualified immunity that protects police officers from damages in court should they violate someone’s civil or constitutional rights? And of course, can any of these changes calm the civil unrest and racial tension simmering beneath it all. One of the members Congress who helps to write those laws goes home to an officer who enforces them, her husband, the sheriff in Rock Island County. Congresswoman Cheri Bustos joining us now, Congresswoman, thanks for joining us.
U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-IL 18th District): Thank you, Mark.
Maxwell: The way I read these two plans, there’s the Justice in Policing Act, there’s the JUSTICE Act, the sort of the Democratic plan and the Republican plan. It seems that Democrats would require police to make changes where Republicans would recommend them and Republicans would also ask the police to report more about their behavior to the public. Why is the Justice in Policing Act, what is it about that act… Or what is it about the Republican plan that you feel doesn’t go far enough?
Bustos: Well, the plan that we have the Justice in Policing Act, which by the way now has more than 200 plus sponsors, so nearly the entire House Democratic caucus is behind this. It look we all are living through this moment. Right? You’re living through it as a reporter. I’m living through it as a member of Congress, Senators, whether you’re Republican or Democrat, you are living through this. America is experiencing a moment of national anguish. And it is time that we do something that has teeth in it. Mark, the difference between the bill that we have and the Senate Republican bill is that this has teeth to it, it has enforcement to it. And we don’t need more studies about the impact of choke holds. We don’t need more studies about how no-knock warrants can go wrong. We are saying that we know that there are problems with this component of policing and we want to have a law that says there will be no more choke holds, there will be no more no-knock warrants, that there will be training of police officers and de-escalation, that there will be training of police officers in understanding the communities where we all live. We think it’s long past due to just study these issues and that we have to do something about it.
Maxwell: It remains to be seen how the debate in the Senate may still play out. Police accountability [is] one step that may address the most visual or the most visceral acts of injustice, those painful moments of anguish that you described that we’ve all seen play out on camera. But what about the more invisible injustices that have lingered behind the scenes, but have been very real, very impactful for generations, that have led up to this moment where we are now? Do you feel confident Democrats have done enough going in 2020 to address systemic racism in our society?
Bustos: Frankly, I don’t think any body of government has done enough. I don’t. Whether it’s a city council, whether it’s a state legislature, whether it’s the US Congress, I think there’s much more that we have to do, but we have to have you know… When we talk about debate, we do have to have this national debate and it can be painful to to talk about the the systemic racism and where that has led our country. But this is a time for a very, a time for a candid debate and conversation. And then action. I always like to look at, you know, what do people expect of a member of Congress, and I always look at it through through the lens of three things: they expect you to work hard because we make a decent wage. They expect you to fight for people when you have a fight on your hands. And they expect you to get results. And I think that makes for a good public servant. So in the case that we’re talking about right now, social justice, criminal justice reform, reform in policing, all of that, again, we can talk about it we can listen. As a, you know, I’m talking to you as a, as a white woman, I’ve got to listen. My lived experiences are very different and cannot be compared to a black man in how he has interacted with police. And so we have to do the listening. We have to write the legislation and if you think about, Mark, the Justice in Policing Act, we moved on that very quickly. In the scheme of the George Floyd murder, we moved on that quickly. I believe that we saw that this is a moment in American history where it is not enough just to talk. We’ve got to do something. We have this bill. We’ll vote on it, and it will pass, and then we’ve got to deal with the Senate, because now we know that they’re not planning to take that up.
Maxwell: You mentioned the debate around this, the moment to take action. This is also an election year. I’d like to highlight and read to you one excerpt from a black voter in Michigan who spoke to Politico for an article titled ‘Can Biden, Joe Biden, survive the Despair of the Black Democrat?‘ That’s the article. The quote was talking about how to win voters over, win Black voters over in this crucial election year. “Don’t bring some 27-year-old white kid from Oregon with skinny jeans and an iPad into my [bleeping] neighborhood in Detroit and tell me how to get out the vote.” One other quote, this time from a state Representative in Michigan, near Detroit: “We’re always the [expletive] help. I’m tired of being the help. Don’t wait until it’s an election year until you’re in trouble to come ask for help saving [yourselves]. They always say it will be different after the next election, but it never is. And we’re sick of it.” And then another person chimes in, “…and that’s why Trump’s going to win again.” [They’re] talking about that despair. When you hear that, how do you react?
Bustos: I understand that. And I hear that. And there’s much of what that person said that I agree with. And you know, it’s like, you see a lot of politicians who are going into an election, and it might be the September or it might be the October before the November election, and all of a sudden they go to a Black church. What we’ve talked about in my campaign for as long as I’ve been in office is I don’t want to be that politician. I always want to make sure that we are building relationships. We are listening. Again, I you know, I also like to look at it as, God gave us two ears and one mouth. Use those proportionately. But listen to people. And I think the anguish that was coming out of that that person’s statement was that, you know, Black voters have been the most reliable voters in Democratic politics for election cycle after election cycle after election cycle. I think what I hear that person saying is, ‘Don’t take my vote for granted. Get to know me. Fight for me when we have a fight on our hands’ — and we do right now — and, ‘make something happen.’ And now, we are in the midst of a divided government. We have a Democratic controlled House, a Republican controlled Senate, and Donald Trump in the White House. That does make it more difficult. We will pass our Justice in Policing Act, because we’re House Democrats and we’re in the majority. The Senate obviously is the floundering in it’s attempts. And if we did send something to Trump, I think the question mark is, would he sign the bill that we are going to pass?
Maxwell: And he’s already signaled that qualified immunity is a non-starter for him. He doesn’t want to go down that road. But look, the President Trump’s rise, and in 2016, it created a lot of questions about these issues. And we’ve seen the racial tension sort of simmering in that discussion as a difficult topic to, to discuss and to address. After the election of President Trump, Politico, the same outlet came to you, curious how a Democrat in your district that elected President Trump could win. It sort of pitched you as I think maybe a Trump voter whisperer, if you’d agree with that there. But you told them that “on sensitive topics,” things like Black Lives Matter, “I don’t dwell on them.” That was back then. Do you wish now that that you had? Do you regret that comment at all?
Bustos: No. You know, I think, umm. Look, I’m a former reporter, and I know what you do to do research when you interviewing somebody. And you could go back to, you know, looking at articles that I used to write, you know, from the 1980s, for that matter. But the moment we’re living in right now, it’s 2020. And we are in the midst of a movement that is very special. And that is very important. And I think, you know, historically, we’ll look back at this and we’ll say this was a moment of change. And I’m confident that again, as House Democrats, where we are in the majority, we will be voting on a momentous piece of legislation that will pass. And, just, whatever the Senate ends up doing, November is a time of change. And what I was going to say about the last person’s statement: the part that I don’t agree with is, Joe Biden is going to win. And as House Democrats, we will stay in the majority and we will grow our majority. I’m increasingly confident that Democrats will win in the Senate as well. And then, this meaningful change… And this isn’t… You know, I know there’s all the articles about, you know, we’re going far left or whatever it is. We will bring about meaningful change that will pass the House that will pass the Senate that will be signed into law. And, and I just… I think this, what we are living through right now will lead to, to momentous change for the better of our country.
Maxwell: There’s changing the laws, but there’s also changing the public thinking. Often our elected officials can take part in that public discussion. What did you think when you heard Vice President Pence reluctant, or even hesitant, declining to say the phrase ‘Black lives matter?’ Should elected officials, should Republicans specifically in this moment, say the phrase ‘Black lives matter?’
Bustos: Well, I don’t know what the hesitancy is. You know, it is a movement that has credibility, that is bringing about change, and umm… How everything has become so partisan, whether it’s, you know, I’ve got a mask sitting on my desk right here behind me. I don’t see that, as wearing a mask, as something that is partisan. Yet that has become partisan. I think in the end, as my shout out to Democrats, Republicans, young, old, right, left, middle of the country, the coast, whatever it is, is that, you know, we’ve got to do what’s right here. And that might not always be politically important or politically popular. But we’ve got to do what’s right. And there is no mistaking, there is no mistaking, that we have to address justice in policing. And you started your comments by saying, you know, I go home at night when I’m at home to my husband, the sheriff of the county where we live. And we have been married for 33 years. I met him with when he was a rookie police officer and I was a rookie reporter covering police beat. So, um, I also know this: that good police officers don’t want bad police officers. And good police officers understand that choke holds should be banned, and that no-knock warrants, they don’t need to happen. So the vast majority of this bill, of the Justice in Policing Act, good police officers can get behind that.
Maxwell: I want to ask you about something close to home too, because before there was George Floyd, there was Jaylan Butler. Things went differently in that case, but this was a moment where the only Black man on the swim team was wearing his letterman’s jacket. [He was] just outside the team bus when police in Rock Island swarmed him, cuffed him, tackled him. One officer pointed a gun in his head and said, ‘If you move I’ll blow your [bleeping] head off.’ What message do you hope to send to the police officers back home passing the Justice in Policing act? How do you hope to alter their behavior, their level of accountability? And do you feel that there’s systemic racism embedded even in police departments in your district?
Bustos: And my message to anybody in law enforcement whether they’re in my district, in my district, um, whether it’s the man that I go home to at night — and he and I, by the way, are in total sync on this — but we want good policing, and we want good police officers. Good policing goes back to the training. You know, everybody who’s a police officer has to go through the Police Training Institute in the state of Illinois. And, and, I think it’s a matter of even looking at that curriculum. What is, what is focused on? How much time is spent on de-escalation? How much time is spent on understanding communities of color? The argument about police officers responding to what perhaps should be a school issue. What should perhaps be a social service issue, where, you know, it’s the Department of Human Services, social workers that respond as opposed to a police officer? I think all of that is worth looking at. In the case of Jaylan Butler, I feel horribly for Jaylan Butler. You know, absolutely. You know, [he] stops at a at a rest stop, and this is this is what happens to him. And I can tell you this. My my husband issued a statement on that almost immediately when he found out about the incident and so…
Maxwell: Would you ask him to release all the footage, if there’s body camera footage, or all the footage of that incident?
Bustos: He already has.
Maxwell: Just the dashcam of the one… That’s all the footage that exists?
Bustos: Well, first of all, it was not his department that responded. It was the Hampton Police Department. But my husband already has released the dashcam footage from start to finish on that call. His officers and his deputies arrived, and they were back up. They did, and they’ve already released that. By the way, that incident happened long enough ago where it was before body cams were even part of the sheriff’s department.
Maxwell: I think it was in 2019. Yeah. Before we let you go, I want to ask you about one other rallying cry we’ve heard around this topic. From your perch at the DCCC, you have a lot of House races. You mentioned you want to grow your majority in the House. Is the phrase ‘defund the police’ helpful, harmful to your cause in those key districts?
Bustos: Well, I’ll turn to Karen Bass, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, a close friend of mine, who has been the lead author of the Justice in Policing Act. She has been very forceful in saying there’s nothing in this bill that calls for defunding the police. And so that the word defund is not part of the bill that we will be voting on. And I think it’s fair to take a look at budgeting and and how a budget is used. A budget is a statement of the community’s values. And to the point that I made earlier about when do you call a social worker. Do you call social worker when somebody is standing on a bridge getting ready to to jump off as opposed to calling in a police officer, which is typically done? When you have problems at school, do you call in a police officer? Or do you call in a social worker or a counselor? All of that. All of that is legitimate to ask those questions and figure out how we’re spending the money. But again, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus has been very forceful in saying that this is not a debate about defunding police.