WASHINGTON – The South Carolina lawmaker at the center of negotiations on an expansive policing reform bill has found himself “choking on my own fears” when officers stop him while driving or walking on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol.
“I have experienced the pain of discrimination,” Tim Scott, the Senate’s only Black Republican, said last month during his nationally televised response to President Joe Biden’s joint address to Congress. “I know what it feels like to be pulled over for no reason. To be followed around a store while I’m shopping.”
For weeks, Scott has been meeting with Democrats in Congress on a bill aimed at holding law enforcement accountable for violent encounters and developing a system to track problematic officers. If he can reach a deal, it will break a months-long stalemate on Capitol Hill following demands for policing reforms in the wake of George Floyd’s murder nearly a year ago.
It’s also thrust the soft-spoken South Carolinian into the spotlight on an issue with broad political ramifications. Success is likely to vault Scott to the forefront of a party trying to appeal to voters of color.
“His position as a Republican, as a person of color, but also somebody who has experienced police discrimination … I just think for all kinds of reasons, he’s really uniquely positioned to broker a compromise to try to get Democrats and Republicans together,” said Gibbs Knotts, dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at The College of Charleston in Scott’s home state. “I think if there’s really anyone who can do it, it’s somebody like Tim Scott, who I think is generally respected.”
A substantive compromise on an issue that has polarized the country – from the Defund the Police movement on the left to the Blue Lives Matter counter from the right – would be a remarkable achievement in a Congress known for its partisan acrimony and derided for its ineffectiveness. That has increased the pressure on Scott and the other negotiators to find middle ground quickly while momentum for reform exists.
But there also is skepticism that Scott can bring his Republican colleagues along in the conversation that has largely been led by progressive activists. Jason Williams, assistant professor of justice studies at Montclair State University who has studied the Black Lives Matter movement, called Scott a Donald Trump loyalist who “tends to pander to the right” on behalf of a party more interested in stalling until pressure for dramatic reform subsides.
“I see him giving absolutely nothing to the cause on this,” Williams said.
Despite progress both sides have reported, a deal is unlikely to be reached by Tuesday, the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s death and the date by which Biden said he wanted to have a bill on his desk to sign.
“We’re still progressing,” Scott told reporters on Capitol Hill Wednesday. “The deeper you dive into it, the more there is to talk about. The good news is we finally found the bottom of the tank and we’re working our way back up.”
‘A systemic problem with policing’
Scott’s feelings of fear and dread around law enforcement mirror the angst expressed by many African Americans as the U.S. reckons with racial discrimination and police brutality after Floyd died last May while suffocating under the knee of of Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin.
Even before Floyd’s death, 84% of Black adults said that when dealing with police they are generally treated less fairly than white people, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center poll. More than six in 10 white adults agreed.
But the solutions Scott is pushing as part of legislation to improve policing do not include broad federal mandates leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement are demanding, such as a complete ban on chokeholds and no-knock warrants, and an end to qualified immunity for individual officers accused of excessive force, which are in the Democrats’ proposal.
“There is a systemic problem with policing in the United States,” said Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., a member of the Congressional Black Caucus who is negotiating the bill with Scott and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. “By enacting transformative reform on a national level, we have a chance to address it.”
Instead, Scott’s Justice Act, first proposed last year following the death of Floyd, calls for beefed up training that emphasizes de-escalation, increases sharing of disciplinary records between agencies on officers who move from one department to another, and offers agencies grants to equip officers with body cameras and incentives to end chokeholds.
And Scott has held firm against activists’ demands that the qualified immunity officers have for protection against lawsuits be weakened, proposing instead to make it easier to sue the agencies that employ the officers – an idea some Democrats have said they are willing to consider.
“The real question is how do we change the culture of policing?” Scott said on CBS’ Face the Nation earlier this month. “I think we do that by making the employer responsible for the actions of the employee. We do that with doctors. We do that with lawyers. We do that in almost all of our industries. And if we do that in law enforcement, the employer will change the culture.”
‘Equilibrium to the conversation’
Scott is not a newcomer to criminal justice reform efforts or issues of racism.
In 2015, Walter Scott, an unarmed Black man, was gunned down by a white police officer from North Charleston – the senator’s home town. The officer claimed Scott (who is not related to the senator) had grabbed the officer’s taser and threatened him, a story refuted by a bystander’s phone footage of the incident.
That prompted Sen. Scott to write a bill funding body cameras for police.
It never passed.
Nor did the Walter Scott Notification Act, a Scott-sponsored measure first introduced in 2015 that would force states to keep track of key details in police-involved shootings, such as the race of both the officer and the victim, whether the victim was armed, and any finding from law enforcement as to whether the shooting was justified.
Scott represents a state seen by many Black people as one of the worst offenders of police violence, said Frank Knaack, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina.
“He comes from a state with a history of severe police violence,” Knaack told USA TODAY. “South Carolina’s home to the first organized police force in the country.”
More: Not just George Floyd: Police departments have 400-year history of racism
Knaack was referring to organized groups of white men, known as “slave patrols,” that hunted down runaway enslaved people. Charleston was home to one of the first organized slave patrols: a division of the police department responsible for, among other things, enforcing slave codes and catching runaways.
While he identifies with the African Americans on Capitol Hill trying to root out police discrimination, Scott embraces his party’s philosophy that the vast majority of officers are good-hearted people and that the problem largely can be solved by helping law enforcement agencies improve training techniques while also rooting out the few bad actors.
“I personally understand the pain of being stopped 18 times driving while black. I also have seen the beauty of when officers go door-to-door with me on Christmas morning delivering presents to kids in the most underserved communities,” he said in the ‘”Face the Nation” interview. “So I think I bring an equilibrium to the conversation.”
‘America is not a racist country’
Growing up in a poor, single-parent household in North Charleston, Scott, 55, found his footing thanks to John Moniz, who ran a local Chick-fil-A restaurant, and became the future senator’s mentor. In his national address last month, Scott said he was “blessed” to have had Moniz, who not only befriended the financially struggling teenager but was instrumental in guiding Scott’s embrace of Christian values.
Scott would go on to star in high school as a football running back, run a small insurance agency, and enter politics as a member of the Charleston County Council. After one term in the state legislature, he was elected to the U.S. House in 2010, the same year a Tea Party wave turned the House red.
In his 2020 book, “Opportunity Knocks: How Hard Work, Community, and Business Can Improve Lives and End Poverty,” Scott wrote about how “growing up decades ago in a much different South Carolina meant daily encounters that left me with an absolute sense of dejection, the sense of not being complete because of the color of my skin, and having it be reinforced on a daily basis.”
In 2012, then-Gov. Nikki Haley tapped Scott to fill the Senate seat left open when Republican Jim DeMint resigned. Scott won a special election in 2014 to keep the seat, making him the first African American elected to the Senate from the South since Reconstruction.
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Scott has kept a relatively low profile during his eight years in the Senate. His signature accomplishment has been the creation of Opportunity Zones, a provision in the 2017 Trump tax cuts which allows states to use federal tax incentives to help low-income communities through private investment.
Once relatively quiet on issues of racial strife, Scott has grown into a prominent voice for a party that’s had little success drawing Black support. Only about 7% of African American voters identify as Republican or lean Republican, although Donald Trump won a slightly larger share in the November election.
While Scott has shared the anxiety he and many other Black Americans feel when encountering police, the South Carolina senator said the economic gains racial minorities have made over the past decades, and even his own story of political triumph, show the U.S. has made enormous strides in healing its shameful past.
“Hear me clearly: America is not a racist country,” he said during his response to Biden’s address.
Responding to Trump’s Charlottesville comments
Scott also has not shied away from taking on his own party when race is the focus.
Two months after Walter Scott’s death, Scott joined Haley in calling for the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina state house in Columbia following the murder of nine Black worshippers by a white man at a historic African American church in Charleston,
“The Confederate battle flag did not cause the hateful, racist actions that left nine families and our entire state grieving, and it remains part of our state’s rich and provocative history,” Scott said at the time. “But for so many, the flag signifies pain and division that has no home here, and that does not represent the present or the future of our great state.”
He then sounded a conciliatory note that’s become a hallmark of Scott’s non-confrontational style: “I do not believe that the vast majority of those who support the flag have hate in their hearts, but it is clear that this is the right step forward for our state.”
Two years later, Scott garnered national headlines by calling out then-President Trump for his comments equating the actions of white nationalists, who carried Nazi flags and chanted “Jews will not replace us,” to that of counterprotesters at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides,” Trump said.
Scott immediately slammed the president.
“Racism is real. It is alive,” Scott told VICE News in an interview that followed Trump’s statements. “What we want to see from our president is clarity and moral authority. And that moral authority is compromised. … There’s no question about that.”
Scott tempered his criticism a few weeks later after a White House meeting with Trump where the senator said the president appeared to be contrite and “reflected on what he said.”
Scott often draws on his Christian faith when confronted with bigotry or challenge.
In 2015, following the Charleston church shooting, Scott delivered an emotional address on the Senate floor, quoting the son of one of the victims: “God cares for His people. God still lives.”
During that meeting with Trump over Charlottesville, the senator recalled the president asking what he could do “to be helpful to the people I’ve offended.” Scott’s answer: fund the Opportunity Zones he’d been championing. It ended up in Trump’s tax bill.
“The president was offering an olive branch, and in what seemed like divine intervention, the good Lord had prepared me with the right answer for an important moment,” Scott wrote in his book.
‘God made me Black for a purpose’
Booker, the Democratic New Jersey senator negotiating on the policing bill, said Scott’s past experiences and personal integrity have made bargaining on the issue easier.
“He’s a good-faith actor, and he’s also a Black man in America and knows a lot of these issues, personally,” Booker said. “So if anybody can get it done on his side, he’s the right person to be negotiating.”
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, agreed, telling USA TODAY Scott “is the perfect person, and our GOP colleagues have every confidence” in him. She continued he “really is the right person to do this. He has a lot invested in this. He’s a great spokesman; I have a lot of respect for him for stepping out and doing this.”
Scott, whose office declined an interview request from USA TODAY, told POLITICO Magazine in 2018 that while “people are fixated on my color, I’m just not.”
Still, he said he understands how his race is important, especially on matters like police reform.
“God made me Black on purpose. For a specific reason. It has helped me to help others who have been locked out of opportunity in many ways,” he told the magazine. “I am not pretending that this characteristic, this Earth suit that I’m in isn’t being evaluated. It requires a response, or a reaction, to the situations at my level of government. I am fully aware of that. I just don’t want to play a game with it.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tim Scott steps into spotlight negotiating police reform for the GOP