Lawmakers in Congress ‘optimistic’ about police overhaul in aftermath of Chauvin conviction

WASHINGTON – Lawmakers of both parties are optimistic they can reach a compromise to overhaul American policing standards after the conviction of Derek Chauvin in the killing of George Floyd led to calls for action Tuesday.

The Democratic-controlled House approved wide-ranging policing legislation last month with passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. But Republican support would be needed in the Senate to overcome a potential filibuster requiring a supermajority in the evenly divided chamber.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress, led by Black lawmakers in the House and Senate, have been negotiating for months on compromise legislation to address what members of both parties see as needed accountability within the police ranks on abusive officers and restrictions on the use of violent force. 

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Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., sponsored a policing bill that died last summer because Democrats blocked it, arguing it didn’t go far enough. But Scott said Wednesday language on compromise legislation could be finalized in “a week or two” as he continues discussing a handful of sticking points with other key lawmakers.

“I think we’re in a position now to move it forward and I think I am cautiously optimistic that we’ll find a path forward,” Scott said.

Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., who wrote the House bill bearing Floyd’s name, called Scott a “straight shooter” and said she is “very optimistic” that legislative language could be completed by the May 25 anniversary of Floyd’s death.

“I’m very optimistic that we’ll get it on President Biden’s desk,” Bass said.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including (L-R) Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-DE), and caucus chair Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-OH) (R) react to the verdict in the Derick Chauvin murder trial in the Rayburn Room at the U.S. Capitol on April 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. Chauvin was found guilty on all three charges in the murder of George Floyd. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images)

The former Minneapolis police officer faces up to 40 years in prison for the most serious charge of second-degree murder. Chauvin was convicted for kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes last year.

President Joe Biden said Tuesday after the verdict that he assured Floyd’s family that he would work to sign legislation overhauling policing. He has supported the House legislation.

“In order to deliver real change and reform, we can, and we must do more to reduce the likelihood that tragedy like this will ever happen to occur again, to ensure that Black and brown people or anyone, so they don’t fear the interactions with law enforcement, that they don’t have to wake up knowing that they can lose their very life in the course of just living their life,” Biden said.

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Vice President Kamala Harris said she helped draft legislation with Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Bass last summer as a senator to reform policing. “This work is long overdue,” she said.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said lawmakers “must remain diligent in our efforts to bring meaningful change to police departments across the country, to reform practices and training, and the legal protections that grant too great a shield to police officers guilty of misconduct.”

“We will not rest until the Senate passes strong legislation to end the systemic bias in law enforcement,” Schumer said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Republicans were prepared to debate policing issues last summer with the bill from Scott, a Black senator “who has experienced some of the issues that bring this to the fore.” But Democrats, including Harris, blocked debate on the measure, arguing it didn’t go far enough.

“We’re still open to looking at police reform, but it ought to come up before the Senate, open for amendments, and our ideas led by Senator Tim Scott ought not to be just summarily dismissed in the process,” McConnell said Tuesday.

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Sens. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., walk in the Capitol on Feb. 13. (Photo: Jack Gruber, USA TODAY)

Senators of both parties are eager for action.

“We have to pass meaningful criminal justice reform in our country,” said Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga. “We got to make sure that we don’t have two sets of policing policies, one for people of color and one for others.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said “policing reform is a topic ripe for discussion.”

While both parties aim to provide more transparency in policing, they pursue different paths toward that goal. For example, Scott’s bill calls for a report establishing best practices for hiring, firing, suspending and disciplining officers. Bass’s bill would create a national Police Misconduct Registry to prevent problematic officers from moving from one jurisdiction to another.

Scott’s bill would require police agencies to report to the FBI when officers have discharged their weapons, or used force, because only about 40% of jurisdictions do so now. Bass’s bill would also require reporting on use of force, including data on race, sex, disability, religion and age.

Scott’s bill and Bass’s bill each seek to encourage officers to wear body cameras by withholding federal funding from their departments if they don’t.

Bass’s bill was approved 220-212 on March 3, with all but one Democrat in favor and all Republicans opposed. Her bill also seeks to prohibit profiling suspects based on race and religion, ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants, and change the legal standard for suing police officers.

The effort against no-knock warrants stemmed from the March 2020 death of Breonna Taylor, who was shot to death in her Louisville, Kentucky, apartment by police who were investigating her boyfriend.

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The doctrine of “qualified immunity” shields police officers from civil liability unless they violate “clearly established” law. Changing that standard has been one of the key sticking points in overhauling policing legislation. In general, Democrats seek to remove the protection for officers from lawsuits, while Republicans oppose the move.

“It’s still being discussed,” Bass said. “I do see a path on qualified immunity,” which she said is crucial to holding officers accountable.

Bass said the White House hasn’t been involved with informal discussions so far, but that lawmakers have kept the president informed.

Scott said there are still several points of contention, including choke holds, no-knock warrants and qualified immunity. Scott said he has discussed with Bass and other lawmakers about easing the ability for a victim or victim’s family to sue a police department rather than an individual officer, as a way to deal with concerns about qualified immunity.

“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 said. “I think that is a logical step forward.”

Graham agreed.

“I don’t want to sue a police officer in an individual capacity,” Graham said. “Sue the entity that hires the police officer.”

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