Steptoe & Johnson LLP
With Congress back in session for only a short time before recessing again in advance of the November elections, PORAC members visited more than 20 Senate and House offices during the week of September 19 to discuss important public-safety-related priorities.
PORAC spoke out on behalf of state and local law enforcement, and called on policymakers to continue and expand funding for several federal grant programs, including the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) initiative and Byrne Justice Assistance Grants (Byrne JAG). In addition, PORAC addressed proposed reforms to the nation’s warrant requirements and sentencing reform, and expressed its support for legislation to modernize and improve the nation’s 9-1-1 emergency communications system. PORAC emphasized to lawmakers that the organization is always available as a resource on law enforcement matters.
PORAC also met with Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which oversees and coordinates the development of the nation’s emergency communications systems. PORAC used this time to discuss problems with the 9-1-1 system and possible policy solutions. While the 9-1-1 system is vital to saving lives, the methods that dispatchers use to locate callers are often outdated and inaccurate. In fact, the system is frequently unable to process emergency messages sent by modern communication platforms, including text messages, video calls and Internet-based calls.
Dispatchers and public safety advocates are pushing for the adoption of new technologies — known as “Next Generation 9-1-1” — that would allow dispatchers to receive and process communiqués from a wide variety of platforms, and would provide emergency responders with more precise and timely location information. PORAC thanked Commissioner Rosenworcel, a steadfast advocate for improving and updating the nation’s emergency systems, for making the transition to Next Generation 9-1-1 a top priority.
In addition to advocating for overall 9-1-1 improvements, PORAC endorsed several pieces of legislation introduced to address shortfalls with the system:
- Kari’s Law Act of 2016 (H.R. 4167/S. 2553) would require multi-line telephone systems (such as hotel and office systems) to have a configuration that permits users to directly initiate a call to 9-1-1 without dialing any additional digit, code, prefix or postfix. The bill was inspired by the murder of a young mother, Kari Hunt, in her hotel room. Kari’s young daughter witnessed her mother’s attack and attempted to call 9-1-1 but was unable to complete an outgoing call because she did not know that the hotel’s telephone system required her to dial an additional digit to gain access to an outside line. The bill passed the House by voice vote on May 23 and awaits action in the Senate.
- The Kelsey Smith Act (H.R. 4889/S. 2770) would require service providers to disclose to emergency responders the best available location information of any communications device used to place a 9-1-1 call or believed to be in the possession of an individual thought to be in an emergency situation. The legislation is named for Kelsey Smith, a Kansas teenager who was kidnapped and murdered. Kelsey had her cellphone with her when she disappeared, and local law enforcement immediately requested location information from her cellphone service provider, which resisted. When the provider finally provided the location information four days later, law enforcement found Kelsey’s body within 45 minutes. Although the bill failed in the House 229–158 due to concerns over data privacy, it may still see action in the Senate.
- The Requesting Emergency Services and Providing Origination Notification Systems Everywhere (RESPONSE) Act of 2016 (H.R. 5236), legislation sponsored by Representative Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), would direct the FCC to promulgate a rule requiring that location information be conveyed with all 9-1-1 calls regardless of the technological platform used to place them. This change could be especially helpful for locating callers in emergency situations where they are able to dial 9-1-1 but may not be able to speak due to dangerous circumstances, such as a kidnapping.
Speaking on behalf of California’s first responders, PORAC expressed its strong support for these bills and the need to dramatically improve our nation’s 9-1-1 emergency services system.
Congress Looks to Avoid Government Shutdown With Short-Term Funding Bill
Under the Budget Act, the federal fiscal year expires on September 30. As this article went to press, Congress had failed to enact any legislation appropriating funds for fiscal year 2017. To avoid having the government shut down at the end of the month, lawmakers focused on budget negotiations immediately upon returning from their long summer recess.
In recent years when Congress has struggled to agree on funding levels in time for the fiscal year deadline, it has passed short-term funding bills, commonly known as continuations or continuing resolutions (CRs). A CR allows the government to function at the previous year’s funding levels for a given period while providing Congress more time to reach agreements on the spending levels for federal programs.
While many lawmakers, especially the most conservative members, favored a long-term CR to extend funding well into 2017, the House and Senate leadership supported a short-term stopgap funding bill to fund the federal government until early December. Come December, Congress will have to pass another funding bill. At this point, it seems most likely that will be accomplished in the form of an “omnibus” bill, which would set new spending levels for the entire government within one spending bill rather than breaking it out into a dozen different bills appropriating funds for specific agencies. It is possible, however, that Congress will enact legislation appropriating funds to certain agencies, while funding other agencies at current levels through a CR. PORAC continues to monitor this process closely, and to advocate in favor of maintaining and expanding funding levels for various Department of Justice programs that provide resources to state and local law enforcement.
Presidential Election Update
By mid-September, a number of national polls indicated that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s post-convention lead over Republican nominee Donald Trump had shrunk. Despite nationwide surveys in late August showing Clinton ahead of Trump by six to 10 percentage points, two weeks later, a national poll from George Washington University had Trump trailing by just two percentage points and another from CNN had him ahead by two percentage points. On September 11, a Los Angeles Times poll showed the two nominees in a dead heat, Clinton’s average lead having shrunk to three percentage points.
On September 7, both candidates appeared separately at a “Commander in Chief Forum” hosted by NBC. Clinton was peppered with questions about her use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state, a practice that has come under public scrutiny and been investigated by the FBI. The discussion with Trump touched on a range of subjects and was marked by several news-making statements, including that American military generals “have been reduced to rubble” under President Obama, he has a secret plan to defeat ISIS, and Russian President Vladimir Putin is a better leader than President Obama.
Many are looking forward to the first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, on September 26, where the two nominees will have the opportunity to debate various policy matters. The other two presidential debates will take place in St. Louis on October 9 and Las Vegas on October 19.