After former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty in the murder of George Floyd last week, progressives celebrated the conviction as a first step in the path to justice for those who have been killed by the police.
President Joe Biden said the guilty verdicts were “a step forward,” but that overall guilty verdicts in these types of cases are “much too rare” and “not enough.”
Before his election, Biden marked his campaign with a spate of progressive goals, including a pledge to create a national police oversight commission within his first 100 days. Yet that deadline has come and gone without any action on the commission, a decision made after consultation with people in the civil rights community, who worried that the Senate would use the issue to stall action on what the Biden administration believes is the best solution for police reform: the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.
“I know Republicans have their own ideas and are engaged in productive discussions with Democrats in the Senate. We need to work together to find a consensus but let us get it done next month by the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death,” Biden said during his joint address to Congress Wednesday night.
Growing urgency for police reform
The nation’s attention has been fixed for the last 11 months on Minnesota and the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who last week was convicted of murdering George Floyd, an event that spurred months of Black Lives Matter protests around the world.
Even during Chauvin’s trial, people continued to die at the hands of the police: Another Black man, Daunte Wright, was shot and killed in a traffic stop by a white police officer in Brooklyn Center. Protesters demonstrated for over a week in the Minneapolis suburb, during which time video footage surfaced of the fatal shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo by a Chicago police officer. Toledo, who was Latino, was killed March 29, the day the Chauvin trial’s testimony began.
In every day that followed, at least one person was killed by the police in America for the duration of the trial. Since testimony began, at least 64 people have died at the hands of law enforcement, with Black and Latino people representing more than half of the dead. Mario Gonzalez died in Alameda, California, after police officers kneeled on him in a restraint. Gonzalez’s death occurred April 19, just one day before Derek Chauvin was convicted.
The fallout from these police killings has been wrenchingly familiar to those paying attention last summer: Graphic videos emerge, sparking protests that often descend into altercations between law enforcement and demonstrators. Tear gas often fills the air. And then the next day or the next week, the process repeats itself.
What’s in the bill
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act includes a number of significant reforms: It would set up a national registry of police misconduct to stop officers from escaping consequences for their actions by moving to another jurisdiction and ban racial and religious profiling by law enforcement at the federal, state and local levels. It would also overhaul qualified immunity, a legal practice used to shield law enforcement from full accountability in court.
The George Floyd Act passed the House without any Republican support in March, and has been largely supported by Minnesota’s Democratic delegation.
“I obviously clearly believe that we should pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act,” said Sen. Tina Smith. “This is a piece of legislation that establishes clear standards for what is an excessive use of force, it would ban the worst kinds of practices that we see like chokeholds and no-knock warrants, and it would create much better ways for holding law enforcement accountable.”
Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota’s Fifth District is also reintroducing three policing bills that she hopes will be incorporated into the George Floyd Act. The bills were all introduced in the last Congress, but their reintroduction is part of the pressure Democrats continue to place on police legislation negotiations in Congress.
One piece of legislation would establish an independent federal agency to investigate deaths that happened under police custody, police shootings and uses of force that resulted in severe bodily injury. The board, if established, would have eight members appointed by the president with the consent of the Senate.
“We are in the midst of national reckoning that recognizes our history of systemic racism and the need for systemwide reform,” Omar said in a statement. “This year the House once again passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act — a bold piece of legislation to end qualified immunity and place meaningful accountability on police violence. But it is clear that further measures are necessary [to] prevent future killings and fully ensure that police are held accountable when they commit violence against civilians.”
Omar also introduced a bill that would “criminalize police violence against protesters.” The bill would allow any officer who kills or causes bodily harm to a civilian during the response to a protest to be charged with a federal crime.
The third measure focuses on global police brutality, calling on Congress to “stand with peaceful protesters around the world in their calls for justice and accountability for police brutality.”
Disagreement on qualified immunity
Negotiators are setting their sights on May 25, the anniversary of Floyd’s death, as a deadline for getting an agreement on the George Floyd Act, and Biden has been putting pressure on Congress to act.
But there are some big hurdles to getting an agreement, one of them being qualified immunity, or the doctrine that protects state and local government officials, including law enforcement, from liability in civil suits unless they violate a person’s “clearly established” constitutional rights. Historically, it’s been difficult to determine what “clearly established” rights or laws are for the purpose of qualified immunity, which tends to protect police officers. Qualified immunity is part of what makes it so difficult to find police officers guilty in civil cases. (The doctrine does not apply to criminal cases.)
Qualified immunity has become a sticking point in the bill, both a non-negotiable for Democrats and a nonstarter for Republicans. Tim Scott, a Republican senator from South Carolina and the Senate’s only Black Republican, has taken the lead on negotiations and has suggested that qualified immunity be stripped from police departments rather than individual officers. This would make it easier for civilians to sue police departments, but still leave some protections for officers.
Informal discussions continue in the Senate, while White House press secretary Jen Psaki has signaled that the White House will let the legislative process play out on Capitol Hill with an openness to Republican adjustments to the George Floyd Act.
“The President doesn’t believe that he alone can pull the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act across the finish line,” Biden’s Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a press conference. “That is going to be up to Congress… The most effective strategy is to allow the space for those conversations to happen privately. And that’s part of our objective.”
Correction: This piece has been corrected to accurately state the way qualified immunity is used to protect police officers from civil liability.