Talks on Policing Reform Unlikely to Meet Biden’s May 25 Deadline

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Congressional negotiators working on an overhaul of policing practices in the U.S. say they remain at odds over so-called qualified immunity for law enforcement officers and are unlikely to meet President Joe Biden’s call for an agreement by the May 25 anniversary of George Floyd’s killing by a White Minneapolis police officer.

Lawmakers in both parties say they still are optimistic a deal can be struck, but they haven’t agreed on how best to bolster accountability for police officers accused of using excessive force or violating the constitutional rights of suspects.

Senator Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, said “it’s going to be very hard” to get it done before a congressional recess that begins at the end of this month, and that “there is no deadline for us.”

Booker, California Democratic Representative Karen Bass, and Senator Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, have been working in earnest since April 20, when former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted on second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in Floyd’s death.

Talks on Policing Reform Unlikely to Meet Biden’s May 25 Deadline

Floyd’s killing, which was recorded on video, sparked protests worldwide and gave new urgency to discussions about racial inequities and police treatment of minorities.

The drive to reach a deal appeared to have become easier after two top congressional Democrats pulled back on the demand that legislation end qualified immunity from civil liability for officers when they are sued for violating someone’s constitutional or legal rights.

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat, this week said he would be willing to support policing reform legislation, even if it didn’t end qualified immunity. Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois said he could back a bill that allows families of victims of police brutality to sue police departments, rather than police officers -- an idea put forth last month by Scott.

Legal Shield

Yet Bass said Wednesday that House Democrats still insist that the legal shield for individual officers be eliminated.

“Qualified immunity will be a part of the final bill,” she told reporters. Scott separately told reporters, “I’m on the exact opposite side.”

The House in early March approved a policing reform bill that would ban chokeholds and federal no-knock drug warrants, eliminate the liability protection for law enforcement officers, prohibit racial and religious profiling and establish a national standard for police department operations.

Talks on Policing Reform Unlikely to Meet Biden’s May 25 Deadline

The Senate hasn’t acted since last June, when Democrats blocked from the floor an alternative by Scott that would have cut 25% of federal funds to police departments that failed to provide detailed information to the Justice Department about incidents of excessive force and no-knock search warrants. It didn’t address the liability issue.

Both the House and Senate bills included resources for improving officer training and bolstering accountability.

Among the other issues being negotiated is whether to change a part of the federal code known as “Section 242” that governs criminal violations of civil rights. Democrats want to change the statute by lowering the threshold that lets officers be prosecuted for depriving a person of their rights, which the House-passed bill does.

Line in the Sand

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell this month drew a line in the sand over the issue of qualified immunity for individual officers, saying that without it officer recruitment and retention will falter.

“I think qualified immunity is important to be continued, and I don’t think I’m going to be supporting a police reform bill without it,” McConnell said at a news conference in his home state of Kentucky.

Talks on Policing Reform Unlikely to Meet Biden’s May 25 Deadline

In the House, Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries said Wednesday “qualified immunity is still very much on the table,” adding that “we’ll see what the final product looks like.”

Philonise Floyd, the brother of George Floyd, and relatives of other Black Americans who died at the hands of police made personal pleas to top senators to agree on bipartisan legislation addressing repeated abuses nationwide, holding a series of meetings in late April with negotiators and with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

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