Anniversary of George Floyd’s Death Casts Long Shadow on Policing Talks
(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden is set to meet privately Tuesday with the family of George Floyd one year after his death, with negotiators working on policing legislation in Congress still stuck on how to hold law enforcement officers accountable for excessive use of force.
The three central players in the discussions -- Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, GOP Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and Democratic Representative Karen Bass of California -- all say they are making progress, though an agreement could yet be weeks away.
Biden surprised lawmakers when he urged them in his April 28 address to Congress to finish work on the legislation by the anniversary of Floyd’s death at the hands of a White Minneapolis police officer, according to an aide familiar with the negotiations. But with the talks at a crucial juncture, the White House hasn’t applied pressure to meet a hard deadline.
Domestic policy adviser Susan Rice on Tuesday praised the proposed legislation is as “a very important step,” if not a “cure-all”
Rice, in an interview with MSNBC, said the negotiations were moving forward in good faith “to see if we can get a meaningful police reform out of the Senate that will move the ball forward as far as we possibly can.”
Civil rights groups are more interested in what they would consider a substantive bill rather than meeting a symbolic deadline, Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, said Monday.
“While I would like to have had something by the anniversary, deadlines are less important than substance,” Morial said.
The protests and rage that followed Floyd’s death have ebbed since last summer. But the conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin last month on second-degree murder and lesser charges for cutting off Floyd’s air supply as he lay handcuffed and begging for mercy gave new impetus to the search for compromise after efforts to pass policing legislation collapsed in the Senate in June 2020, when Democrats blocked a GOP-only bill drafted by Scott.
Floyd’s family members have been actively engaged. Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, and relatives of other Black Americans who died at the hands of police were in the Capitol on April 29 meeting with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer as well as with Scott, Booker and Bass.
Members of the family are to meet with Booker in his office on Tuesday after their visit to the White House, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Members of Floyd’s family, including his young daughter Gianna, will visit the White House Tuesday. The meeting will be private because Biden wants to have an open conversation with them, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday.
‘Room to Work’
Biden -- who faces pressure from civil rights advocates and Black voters who were key to his election -- has dispatched administration officials including Rice, senior adviser Cedric Richmond and director of legislative affairs Louisa Terrell to stay in regular contact with lawmakers, according to an official familiar with the situation.
“The president is still very much hopeful that he will be able to sign the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act into law, and we are of course very closely engaged with the negotiators while also leaving them room to work,” Psaki said.
Talks among Scott, Booker and Bass have been taking place almost daily in recent weeks. Although the House is on break, Bass said she will remain in Washington this week to continue the work. All three have refused to say much about the substance of their talks.
“One year ago, George Floyd’s murder awakened millions of people around the world who had never before witnessed the deadly consequences of the failures in our policing system,” Scott, Booker and Bass said in a joint statement Monday. “While we are still working through our differences on key issues, we continue to make progress toward a compromise and remain optimistic about the prospects of achieving that goal.”
Booker told reporters separately that, “We’re a lot closer” though an agreement wasn’t imminent.
The biggest sticking point is the legal doctrine of “qualified immunity,” which shields police officers from being sued for violating someone’s constitutional or legal rights. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell has said he won’t back any bill that removes the legal protection for individual officers facing civil lawsuits, and it would take 60 votes to advance the legislation in a Senate split 50-50 between the two parties.
Two senior Democrats, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn and Senate Democrat Whip Dick Durbin, have suggested there could be a compromise on qualified immunity. Clyburn said he didn’t want ending it to hold up the broader bill, and Durbin indicated he could support a deal along the lines on proposed by Scott that would allow families of victims of police brutality to sue police departments, rather than individual officers.
But that risks trouble with liberal Democrats. In the House, which Democrats govern with a 219-211 majority and five vacancies, a group of 10 party progressives led by Representatives Cori Bush of Missouri and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, sent a letter to their leaders on Friday urging them to ensure that any final bill entirely eliminates the legal doctrine.
Morial said “qualified immunity is an essential part of any effort to give victims of police brutality a way to enforce their rights in federal court. There are “compromises and middle ground” that can be had, but it shouldn’t be deemed untouchable, he said.
One aide familiar with the negotiations said that Scott’s idea of suing police departments in civil cases remains on the table in the talks. The aide also said that Scott continues to see as a “red line” his demand that no changes be made to a part of the federal criminal code called Section 242 that relates to when police officers and other officials can be prosecuted -- and face fines or prison terms -- for violating someone’s constitutional rights.
That comes into play when it is shown an officer “willfully” violated someone’s rights. Democrats have sought to lower that legal threshold.
Another aide familiar with the talks said that Booker and Bass see officer accountability in both civil and criminal cases as a chief priority in any legislation and they have not made any concessions.
Still, the aide said there are signs of progress in other areas. While nothing is on paper yet and final, the aide said negotiators are looking at limiting the transfer of some military equipment to local police departments, setting some federal standards for no-knock warrants and banning use of chokeholds except in life-threatening situations. A House bill passed in March and Scott’s earlier proposal both would establish a federal database to track use-of-force incidents involving state and local police officers, and would withhold some federal funds from those that don’t participate.
Morial linked slow progress on the Floyd bill to other Biden legislation that’s faced gridlock in Congress, including on infrastructure and voting rights.
“The president’s people are probably making a calculation that simply making pronouncements at this stage may not be helpful to the discussions that are going on behind the scenes,” Morial said.
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