United States Sen. Tim Scott (R-South Carolina) has been championing police reform legislation since 2015, following the killing of Walter Scott, a black man shot in the back by a white police officer in Sen. Scott’s hometown of North Charleston. The first African American senator from a Southern state since 1881, Scott convinced President Trump to include Opportunity Zones for distressed communities as part of the 2017 tax reform law. He recently spoke to Decision about the racial and political unrest in cities like Atlanta, Seattle and Portland in the weeks following the killing of George Floyd; his vision for police reform that builds public trust while preserving a strong police presence; and the importance of the Christian witness in addressing racial justice issues.
Q: First of all, how does your Christian faith shape your view of what law enforcement should be?
A: I think of law enforcement as a calling—that most people who go into law enforcement should not see it as a job or as a profession or even as a way of a life, but as a calling. I think of Romans 13 as it describes the role of government and officials who are given a weapon, a sword. That whole picture to me is a validation that law enforcement should be a minister to protect us. That means that you have placed yourself at the highest position of responsibility and accountability.
Through the lens of Romans 13, law enforcement officers should be character-driven people who seek to serve someone and something—country, city, community—above themselves. When that happens, we get a different outcome. And frankly, as we pursue that level of righteousness in law enforcement and in institutions of authority to include elected officials, I think we should expect that they are going to see their responsibility and the people whom they serve as a part of their calling.
Q: In June, as you addressed your colleagues in the Senate, you cited Ezekiel 33, which discusses the watchman charged with sounding the alarm of danger coming. You were emphasizing the responsibility of acting on police reform even as the alarms are being sounded. Would you elaborate on that?
A: When I say danger is coming, I mean when you start eroding the foundation on which you stand, when you put politics above people, I think you put yourself and our country in jeopardy. And I do think we have just started to see the manifestation of the danger that’s coming, whether that’s Portland, Seattle, Atlanta—I think we’re in for a rough ride if we’re not careful. So when I mentioned Ezekiel 33, the watchman on the wall, there is a responsibility to address this legislatively.
Q: You have also lamented what you describe as a false binary choice that people are being presented: either “backing the blue” by standing with police, or supporting communities of color. What are we getting wrong?
A: My theory is it is a false dichotomy and a false reality that you have to choose between supporting communities of color or supporting our law enforcement officers. I say that because so often, we as African Americans don’t want to be stereotyped because it’s wrong. It’s a sin. To do so to law enforcement officers is also wrong and it’s a sin. So for anyone who says I can’t be for one because I’m for the other, that’s just false. And frankly, there are thousands of African Americans who are law enforcement officers, and there’s a vast majority of law enforcement officers who are just good people trying to get home to their own families.
Q: Your police reform bill stalled in the Senate along party lines, yet there is significant overlap in the aims of both the Democrat House and Senate GOP versions. What are the major components that you believe most Americans would agree about?
A: What I have proposed is a strong set of data that leads to actions and resources to prevent that which is preventable. My legislation focuses on data collection, on serious bodily injury, on incidents that lead to death at the hands of police, so that we can analyze the information to determine the necessary training, resources, what direction we should go, every facet. Data collection is very important. The House agrees with that, but they want more data than I asked for, even the federal government looking at every traffic stop and every video, which I don’t necessarily want. But in a situation where there is serious bodily injury or death, it makes total sense to have the data.
Since 2015, I’ve worked on funding for body cameras because if a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth a thousand pictures, and it paints a better story. Both bills speak to that and to the necessity of more training, whether it’s bias training, the duty to intervene, de-escalation training, all those things are in some form or fashion in both bills.
My legislation seeks to change the use of chokeholds—meaning any hold that knocks a person out—and to ban them whenever possible. We go at it on the federal level, instructing the attorney general to ban chokeholds for federal officers because that’s really the only place we actually have direct authority. On the state level, we changed the eligibility for grants in order to create reform incentives. The Democratic House version does basically the same thing with some slight differences. And then there is the establishment of a police commission, which President Obama wanted as well. This would establish best practices, so that 18,000 law enforcement agencies around the country have the best profile of professional behavior available anywhere. Those are the basic components.
But we have two major areas of disagreement. Both deal with how we treat the officers and safeguard their legal rights. This is where the average American would say, “That makes sense.” In cases when you are going after an officer—whether it’s a criminal proceeding or civil liability—when you go after the officer at a higher threshold, making it easier to sue or imprison the officer, I think that has a chilling effect on all officers, especially the good ones. So when you send a clear signal that we are going to punish good officers along with bad officers, you are essentially saying we just think all officers are bad. That kind of stereotyping I have fought against for 50 years of my life as a black man.
My approach has been to provide ways for families affected by unjust police violence to seek legal recourse from cities and departments and counties when their loved one is treated poorly by law enforcement and the jury finds that to be the case. But if we don’t protect good officers, we are going to run good cops out and they will be replaced with others who bring more issues, more problems, and that is not in anyone’s best interest. That is the major bone of contention.
Q: Having watched this summer’s demonstrations in cities across the country, some peaceful but others turning violent, the Christian voice seems to have been largely drowned out by radical and secular elements. Do you see a future for a distinctively Christian racial justice effort?
A: I do think this is a classic opportunity for the church to be essential and prove its credibility by its responses to the situation. To me, pastors and religious leaders should be at the table with people who don’t look like them, having conversations and then creating an action plan on how we are going to improve the quality and fairness of our justice system and the quality of the lives in our communities.
It is a slow, painful process. We don’t typically have the patience for the long view. We want to do something today, check that box and move on. For us to change the outcome of this nation, we are going to have to do the hard work of taking the long view and setting goals and objectives five years out and working toward those outcomes, as opposed to having a knee-jerk reaction because we feel the guilt or the pain of forces that we helped create in many ways.
Q: What would you want readers to grasp about the reality of racism in America?
A: I would simply say that there’s no doubt that racism in America is real. Yet America is not a racist country. Our systems are no longer designed for racial outcomes based on a racist heart. However, we were those things. And so we have to wrestle with that truth a little bit more than we are willing to do, especially as Christians. These are some of the most important times in the history of this country. We apologize for sitting on the sidelines. But that doesn’t necessarily make things right. It doesn’t necessarily change the outcomes for the people who have been the victims of that level of racism in our country. So first, it’s real; second, it’s pervasive; and, third, it is not the majority. However, the vestiges of that racist past still manifest in racial outcomes. And that’s one of the reasons why I think it’s going to take a long time for us to walk on this journey. It’s not simply, “What law do I need to pass?” It’s really not even simply a change of the heart. That’ll solve it for today, but the problems that we have in the society are based on essentially 200 years or so of exclusion of most black people from the systems of this country that have been the most effective—capitalism, social mobility, economic opportunity. Those things were essentially denied to the vast majority of black folks in this country until the late ’60s at best, from my perspective. So wrestling with that is wrestling with the behemoth, so to speak.
I’m studying this issue a lot right now in my prayer time. The most transformative force on earth is love. And God is love. It’s not one of His attributes—it’s who He is. And so if we were to embrace our fellow believers, I would really start there. To embrace our fellow believers and spend more time with people who are not like ourselves. I think it would lead to partnerships and opportunities to experience life together, and we would be open to living lives based on the Bible, not denominations and not the traditions of our family or of our race based on a perversion of truth. I would rather have a pure version of truth. And that’s what I try to do.
—Interviewed by Jerry Pierce, managing editor