Chauvin verdict sparks optimism among lawmakers on police reform

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David Lightman, Francesca Chambers, Alex Roarty
·5 min read
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Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s conviction for the murder of George Floyd has provided a jolt of momentum to Congress’ long-stalled effort to enact meaningful police reform, lawmakers on Capitol Hill said.

Members of Congress who are working to craft legislation said they are optimistic that a compromise that appeals to both parties can be reached as they continue to negotiate after Tuesday’s verdict, though significant hurdles still remain on the volatile issue.

Rep. Karen Bass, a California Democrat who is leading the charge in the U.S. House, said she is hopeful that a bipartisan group working on police reform will have the text for a new bill ready next month.

“I think we can get it to the finish line,” Bass said Tuesday. “I don’t see this being dragged out. I would like to have some language by the time we hit the anniversary of George Floyd’s death.”

Floyd died on May 25 of last year, which initially sparked a wave of racial justice protests across the country and renewed calls for police reform in Washington.

Bass said she is working with Sens. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., on policing reform legislation. Scott said that lawmakers were making progress, calling Bass an “honest broker.”

Bass said qualified immunity for police officers, a major focus of civil rights advocates, is under discussion, but declined to shed light on what other policies members of Congress were considering.

Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine that helps to shield police officers from being held personally liable for actions taken while they are on the job unless the conduct explicitly violates constitutional rights. Many on the left want to end the policy, but most Republicans are in support of it.

“There is a way to put more of the onus or the burden on the department or on the employer than on the employee,” Scott told reporters. “I think that is a logical step forward, and one that as I’ve spoken with Karen Bass over the last several weeks, it’s something that the Democrats are quite receptive to.”

Other Republicans, like Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., shared Scott’s view, signaling there may be room for compromise on the issue.

“I don’t want to sue the police officer in an individual capacity,” he said. “Sue the entity that hires the police officer. If you work for a company you sue the company. I think that would solve most of it.”

A THORNY ISSUE

Any bipartisan agreement on police reform would represent an unexpected breakthrough for Congress on a deeply fraught issue, one that has pitted Republicans and Democrats against each other in recent years amid the Black Lives Matter movement.

Efforts to pass legislation in the immediate aftermath of Floyd’s death stalled, as a police reform measure approved by the Democratic-held House was never brought up for a vote in the GOP-controlled Senate last year.

Last March, the House again passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act along a mostly party-line vote. Passing police reform legislation through the evenly divided Senate would require the support of all 50 Democrats and at least 10 Republicans to overcome the legislative filibuster.

Following the high-profile Chauvin trial, civil rights advocates said they felt a renewed sense of confidence that the bill would become law this year with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’ support.

“We’re going to continue to fight for the passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act so we can — I can sign it into law as quickly as possible,” Biden said in a Tuesday evening speech.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that Biden and members of his staff had been engaged in conversations about policing reform legislation, including with Senate leadership. Biden met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus in the Oval Office last week along with Harris. Booker was also part of that meeting.

Psaki declined to say whether the president had spoken to any Republicans in the Senate about policing reform legislation. She said it would be up to Congress to work out the details, and the White House’s objective is to “be helpful and constructive and give feedback as is needed but also to leave space for those negotiations to happen.”

“I think the president certainly sees this moment as an opportunity to redouble everyone’s efforts in getting this legislation passed and moved forward,” Psaki said. “He’s eager to have something on his desk, but we’re not here to set a deadline at this point in time.”

DEEP DIVIDE

Still, stark differences remain between police reform advocates and groups worried the changes will hinder the ability of law enforcement agencies to do their jobs.

Civil rights advocates said that legislation that does not ban chokeholds, bar no-knock warrants and put additional limitations on qualified immunity is inadequate.

“This is about a substantive bill that brings about change. This is not about a group of politicians showing up at a signing ceremony to say they’ve done something because of a photo op,” said National Urban League President Marc Morial. “Those of us who worked on George Floyd Justice in Policing, those of us that have worked on police reform and systemic change and policing for years and years and years have no more patience with symbolic gestures. We need a substantive bill.”

But police groups have said that removal of qualified immunity for officers is a non-starter.

“I’m not sure with that provision included in it that it would have a chance of passing the Senate,” said Laura Cooper, executive director of Major Cities Chiefs Association, which represents police chiefs in the largest cities in the United States and Canada. “So that’s something we all need to talk about at length, and come to agreement on.”