WASHINGTON – Bolstered with new momentum, Congress is ready to try again to change the nation’s policing laws, heeding President Joe Biden’s admonition that the guilty verdict in George Floyd’s death is “not enough” for a nation confronting a legacy of police violence.
Legislation that was once stalled on Capitol Hill is now closer than ever to consensus, lawmakers of both parties said Wednesday, a day after a Minneapolis jury found former officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death. Behind the scenes, negotiations are narrowing on a compromise for a sweeping overhaul, though passage remains uncertain.
Tuesday’s verdict launches “a new phase of a long struggle to bring justice to America,” declared Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., in urging passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. “This is the human rights issue in the United States of America.”
The revived effort, led by Black lawmakers, including Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, comes at a pivotal moment. The nation is on edge over the Floyd case, the deaths of other Black Americans – including a 16-year-old girl brandishing a knife about the time the Minneapolis verdict was announced – and almost a year of protests accusing police of brutal actions that often go unseen.
The guilty verdict for Chauvin was a rare occurrence, not least because in this case an officer’s actions were recorded by a bystander and shown to the jury in court. That followed months of the video being played repeatedly on TV, imprinted in the minds of Americans everywhere.
With political pressure mounting on all sides, Biden is urging Congress to plunge back into policing legislation.
“We can’t stop here,” he said Tuesday after the verdict.
In private, Scott briefed key Republican senators on Wednesday, updating his colleagues on quiet negotiations that have been underway with Democrats for nearly two months. He told reporters he expected to wrap up those talks with the Democrats within two weeks.
“We’ve made tremendous progress,” Scott said on Capitol Hill.
Democrats say they are ready.
“This has to come to a stop,” said Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., the highest ranking Black elected official in Congress, after the Chauvin verdict.
He and others, including Scott, have told wrenching stories of their own experiences with law enforcement well into their adult lives as elected officials serving in the most powerful corridors of power.
Congress struggled with a police overhaul bill last summer in the immediate aftermath of Floyd’s death, but the legislation went nowhere after Democrats and Republicans could not agree to a compromise package.
The House, led by Democrats, has twice approved a sweeping overhaul, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, that would be the most substantial federally ordered changes to policing in a generation.
The bill would allow police officers to be sued and damages awarded for violating people’s constitutional rights, limiting “qualified immunity” protections now in place for law enforcement.
The legislation would ban the use of chokeholds and would create a national databases of police misconduct in an effort to prevent “bad apple” officers from being hired by other departments.
A Republican bill from Scott does not go as far as the House-passed measure.
It was blocked last year by Senate Democrats, a fact that Republicans are emphasizing.
The GOP’s Justice Act would step up compliance by law enforcement in submitting use-of-force reports to a national database. It also would require compliance reports for no-knock warrants, like the kind officers used to enter the residence when Breonna Taylor was killed in Kentucky.
The Democratic and Republican bills do share some provisions, including a measure making lynching a federal hate crime.
Talks in recent weeks have centered on one of the main differences, the limits on the public’s ability to sue law enforcement officers under “qualified immunity.” One alternative being discussed would allow police departments, rather than individual officers, to be held liable.
“I think that is a logical step forward,” said Scott, putting more of the burden on the department rather than the officer.
Biden is sure to speak about policing issues in his address to a joint session of Congress next Wednesday. Though he is eager to get a police reform bill on his desk, press secretary Jen Psaki says the decision on what legislation is passed and when is the responsibility of Congress.
The White House is giving lawmakers “space” to hash out details, Psaki said.
Not that Biden is steering totally clear. Senior administration leaders are consulting with members of Congress, as is the president, who has held separate Oval Office meetings with lawmakers. Aides are also working with civil rights organizations and other outside groups to pressure Congress to act.
And on Wednesday, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the Department of Justice is opening a sweeping investigation into Minneapolis policing. It will examine whether there is a “pattern or practice” of unlawful or unconstitutional actions and could result in changes.
But in the aftermath of Floyd’s death and others, some leading Black advocates say neither bill being discussed in Congress goes far enough to stem a national history of police brutality.
In the hours after Chauvin’s conviction, activists across the nation were shifting their attention toward Democratic leaders who they say must be held accountable for campaign promises that were made about addressing police abuse and other pressing issues facing Black Americans.
Reform can’t “happen around the edges,” said Maurice Mitchell, a Movement for Black Lives strategist and national director of the Working Families Party.
The Movement for Black Lives, which has opposed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, is pressing officials to consider its BREATHE Act legislation, which would completely overhaul the nation’s criminal justice system and shift funding toward communities, he said.
“Democrats should be on notice that talk is cheap and that Black folks are very clear that our vote put them over the top and put them in the position to govern,” Mitchell said. “And now they need to govern and lead with the clarity that it is the Black community, the Black vote and Black movements that were an essential part of the electoral coalition that brought them into this position.”
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