A year ago today, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for over nine minutes. Since then, Democrats in Congress have spoken out forcefully about the need to change policing in the U.S., and President Joe Biden declared on April 28 that he wanted a police reform bill passed by the anniversary of Floyd’s death. But those efforts have largely fallen flat.
That Congress missed today’s artificial deadline is not necessarily a surprise to organizers, who were frustrated that after so many overtures to the cause — including an embarrassing stunt in which members wearing traditional Ghanaian kente cloth kneeled on the floor of the Capitol — the House still passed a bill that gave millions of additional dollars to police. Biden, instead of signing a deal, will meet with Floyd’s family for the first time in-person since his death. And even if Congress does pass a bill in the weeks or months that follow, some advocates are skeptical that it would fundamentally change the way police operate.
In March, the Justice in Policing Act passed the House on a 220-212 vote. Though the bill was all but guaranteed to die in the Senate, Democrats celebrated its unlikely prospects for enforcement. “We’re proud of this legislation, which will fundamentally transform the culture with bold, unprecedented reforms,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at a press conference on the bill’s passage.
But to Scott Roberts, senior director of criminal justice campaigns at Color of Change, the pageantry was “troubling.” He told The Intercept that “it feels like an effort to make [JPA] the end-all-be-all.” After a jury convicted Chauvin of murder last month, congressional staffers told Axios there was a sense of relief in the Capitol that Chauvin’s conviction alleviated pressure to pass a police reform package. Meanwhile, organizers renewed a push to further policies that prevent violent interactions with law enforcement in the first place, rather than simply trying to hold police accountable after they’ve already caused harm to someone, as was the aim of most congressional negotiations, Roberts said.
One such measure would be ending the transfer of military equipment to local law enforcement, one key provision of JPA that looks likely to survive in the Senate. Roberts stressed that activists might have more success pushing for similar changes in their local police departments, rather than waiting for change at the federal level.
“Part of our work is, frankly, trying to point people in other directions,” he said. “Where are those local interventions? Especially in places where Black communities have the power to move stuff. Where there’s not a Joe Manchin and a Tim Scott standing in our way.”
“It feels like an effort to make [JPA] the end-all-be-all.”
Senate negotiations on police reform started breaking down on May 9, when House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., told CNN that Democrats should open their minds to passing a measure that did not end qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that protects police officers from civil suits.
Over the past year, ending qualified immunity has often been framed as a marquee activist issue, but the concept has long had bipartisan support. Following backlash from some centrist members to protests against police brutality, Democrats have been skittish to support any measure that could be used to attack them later as anti-police, and many have leaned into the notion that the legal doctrine is untouchable. The likelihood that a measure to end or even limit the scope of qualified immunity will advance to the final package is growing smaller by the day as former Congressional Black Caucus Chair Karen Bass, D-Calif., and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., try to hammer out a deal with Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.
At the time of Clyburn’s comments, several Democratic congressional staffers told The Intercept the majority whip was speaking for himself, was not at the negotiating table, and that his views did not represent the views of people leading negotiations. Scott, for one, had been open to a compromise on qualified immunity until Clyburn’s comments made the rounds. By May 12, Scott told congressional reporters he was on “the exact opposite side.”
Several progressives in the House have expressed frustration with this session’s congressional efforts to develop meaningful police reform. Even the much-hailed JPA, they noted, was passed as something much different than what organizers pushing reforms at the height of protests last summer were actually calling for.
“Leadership in the House, the Senate and the White House have got to ensure … that the American people see the transformative change they have demanded.”
When the House voted on JPA in March, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., negotiated with the House Judiciary Committee to hold a series of hearings on police reform in exchange for her voting “yes” on the bill. Pressley’s demand came in response to frustration from organizers who saw that after so many speeches and promises to voters, Congress was only willing to go so far.
Other groups, including the political arm of the Movement for Black Lives, pushed alternative measures and actively opposed JPA. The group helped develop an alternative proposal, the BREATHE Act, which would divest from law enforcement agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration and Immigration and Customs Enforcement and reinvest funds from such agencies into social, health, and education programs. Pressley and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., endorsed the BREATHE Act last year, but the proposal never took off in Congress.
Given Democrats’ razor-thin margin in the House, progressive members of the “squad” could potentially tank a bill that doesn’t go far enough. Just last week, they considered such a move on a proposal to give an additional $1.9 billion to U.S. Capitol Police and for Capitol security. After negotiating with leadership up to the last minute, they split and allowed the vote to pass with three present (Tlaib, Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.) and three no votes (Pressley, Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., and Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.). It’s unclear whether they’ll be so forgiving when, and if, a police reform package ever returns to the House.
On Friday, 10 progressives led by Pressley and Bush sent a letter to congressional leadership expressing concerns with discussions about passing any police reform package that lacks a qualified immunity repeal. Tlaib; Omar; Ocasio-Cortez; Bowman; Rep. Mondaire Jones, D-N.Y.; Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill.; Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.; and Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., signed the letter.
Bowman told The Intercept it would be “extremely difficult” to support any police reform package that does not end qualified immunity. “Leadership in the House, the Senate, and the White House have got to ensure that negotiations do not water the bill down ahead of final passage, that we save lives, and that the American people see the transformative change they have demanded,” he said.
Jones agreed. “To truly honor George Floyd’s legacy, we must enact meaningful police reform that actually addresses systemic racism in policing,” he told The Intercept. “I cannot imagine myself voting for something that does not end qualified immunity, which is what is going to deter officers in a meaningful way from engaging in the misconduct that is on the public conscience.”
Bush told CNN last month that she would not support a compromise on qualified immunity. “I didn’t come to Congress to compromise on what could keep us alive,” she said.
“To truly honor George Floyd’s legacy, we must enact meaningful police reform that actually addresses systemic racism in policing.”
In a statement, Watson Coleman said that keeping qualified immunity would be an insult to protesters and voters who helped elect Biden. “Despite protests, demands, and elections, unarmed Black people continue to die at the hands of the police while qualified immunity continues to shield police from accountability and the culture of excessive force by the hands of law enforcement against Black and brown bodies persists,” she said, adding that the removal of the provision “would be an affront to those who marched and those who voted for change — effectively placing a bandage over a gaping wound.”
Her office said they couldn’t say how she would vote on a changed police reform bill before seeing its final version.
In addition to a ban on qualified immunity, JPA policies that may not make it into a Senate bill include making it easier to federally prosecute officers who violate someone’s civil rights and any meaningful cuts to federal law enforcement budgets. The latter piece was central to the failed BREATHE Act.
Several measures that are unlikely to have much impact on policing have a stronger chance of approval from Senate negotiators. These include mitigation efforts that are already in place in many cities, like implicit bias training, bans on chokeholds, and body cameras. Organizers point out that such mechanisms don’t decrease the number of interactions people have with police, which is a key part of addressing the root causes of police brutality and, in many cases, don’t actually end the use of banned tactics. In New York, for example, where police banned chokeholds in 1993, Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner with a chokehold in 2014. The state assembly passed a bill banning chokeholds, named after Garner, in 2020.
Even so, mainstream media has covered congressional efforts thus far on police reform as the pinnacle of legislative activity on the topic: as “the most ambitious police reform effort in decades,” as “police-overhaul” legislation, and as something “that would change the way policing works in America.” While it’s true that JPA was one of the most significant congressional efforts to address police brutality in decades, that’s only because there wasn’t much to compare it to before.