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A black Republican's dilemma: How to fix police without big government

NAMM members meet with Sen. Tim Scott and his staff in the Hart Senate Office Building.
NAMM members meet with Sen. Tim Scott and his staff in the Hart Senate Office Building.
Kris Connor/Getty Images

When I heard that Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) was pushing to get congressional funding for police body cameras after the deaths of Walter Scott, Freddie Gray and countless other unarmed black men who've died at the hands of white cops, I was uplifted.

Scott is one of just two black lawmakers in the Senate. He's from the Deep South, where he grew up as a poor kid in North Charleston, South Carolina, raised by a single mother. He understands personally the national dialogue on race and the growing frustration and outrage over police brutality and excessive use of force by officers across the country.

But he’s also a Republican. Scott believes the federal government should not dictate local and state policy. So he is grappling with how to craft legislation that will improve the relationship between police and communities they are meant to protect, but without forcing local authorities to bend to the federal government.

I believe Scott is making an honest attempt to help solve an important problem in the black community and is moving in the right direction. But his political views have left him with a muddled policy proposal, at least so far. He met with reporters in his Capitol Hill office recently to talk about his push for body cameras, but reporters left with several big questions unanswered. Here are three he’ll need to figure out if he truly wants to help solve this problem from his perch in the Senate.

Scott's first big challenge: write a bill

In the meeting with reporters, Scott said he'll introduce a bill in the next three weeks to 90 days. But he says he's still gathering information before he drafts anything. He spoke generally, saying he hopes the bill "addresses the concerns, provides the funding and avoids the pot holes and pitfalls."

Scott took on police reform shortly after the death of Walter Scott last month. A video recorded by a bystander showed a North Charleston officer shoot the 50 year old black man eight times in the back as he fled. The incident happened in the senator's hometown, which struck a nerve, and he supported a bill in his home state. Soon after he began agitating for a hearing in the Senate, which took place last week. Now he says he is getting ready to introduce a bill.

Scott has said repeatedly that policing is a local effort, not a federal effort, and that he doesn’t want anyone under the impression that he supports federalizing local policing when he introduces his body camera legislation.

"I think local law enforcement is truly local law enforcement and when we start telling them what has to be a part of their uniform, so to speak, I think it's dangerous territory from my perspective," he said.

But he's not saying going into much detail beyond that. There are any number of policies he could outline in this proposal. But so far, what those are is quite vague. He's said he wants to make body cameras available, but he's said little else.

"The legislation I'm hopeful of designing will first be a funding apparatus, second using a grant avenue and third, maybe have a very broad brush framework on being eligible for the funds," he told me.

Until he shows what he's got in terms of policy, it's hard to know how effective it will be.

He needs to put money on the line — or prove he can pay for it

Scott's next problem: how to pay for his legislation. He plans on asking for as low as several hundred million dollars to pay for his proposal, though he still hasn’t pinned down a hard number. His starting point is already substantially higher than the $20 million the Obama administration will give to local police departments to help buy body cameras — the first phase of a three, year, $75 million program that will supply 50,000 devices.

Still, there's reason to believe that Scott could push his proposal through a Republican-controlled Congress. There is already a vocal faction of Republicans who share his value of police reform. And the party is looking for ways to broaden their tent. Supporting popular reform, especially one pushed by a black senator, wouldn't hurt.

But fellow Republicans will want to know how he intends to foot the bill for his project. So far, we just don't know.

Jarrod Bruder, executive director of the South Carolina Sheriffs' Association, testified during Tuesday’s Senate hearing on body cameras that "the primary issue preventing law enforcement agencies from fully embracing the use of body-worn cameras is the exorbitant cost." And although 15 percent of sheriffs' offices in South Carolina have body cameras, he said it cost one county $600,000 for the initial purchase of body cameras for 250 deputies, and $600,000 each year in recurring expenses.

Scott will need significant funds to make this work. And he'll have to figure out where to find them.

Will cops volunteer to wear body cameras?

Scott has rallied behind a legislative effort in his home state of South Carolina to require all state and local police officers wear body cameras after the death of Walter Scott. But in his own national proposal that he’s crafting, he says he doesn't want to mandate body cameras for every police officer.

The disconnect between what he wants to happen — for cops to wear cameras — and how to make it happen, is one of the biggest unanswered questions of his push.