Ten House progressives on Friday urged congressional leaders to end qualified immunity in a developing police reform bill, as a dispute over whether to weaken the rules shielding officers from civil lawsuits stalls progress toward a bipartisan agreement.
Lawmakers led by Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., have worked to craft a plan that could win the Republican support needed to get through both chambers of Congress. They have tried to tweak a House-passed bill, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which among other changes aims to ban chokeholds, carotid holds and no-knock warrants, and seeks to end qualified immunity.
The protections officers have from civil lawsuits now pose the main obstacle toward passing a reform bill in response to the largest movement against systemic racism and police violence in decades. Congress will miss President Joe Biden’s deadline to pass policing legislation by May 25, the one-year anniversary of when George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, died after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin held his knee on Floyd’s neck for roughly nine minutes.
In the letter sent Friday to the top Democrat and Republican in the Senate and House, the 10 House Democrats said they were “concerned” about the prospect of negotiators removing the qualified immunity language in order to strike a bipartisan deal.
“Given that police violence, as a weapon of structural racism, continues to have devastating and deadly consequences for Black and brown lives across our country, we strongly urge you to not only maintain but strengthen the provision eliminating qualified immunity as negotiations in the Senate continue,” wrote the lawmakers, who included Reps. Cori Bush of Missouri and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts.
The police reform negotiators have held talks for weeks as they try to craft a bipartisan deal. The push to strike an agreement comes as police use of force against Black Americans roils communities including Elizabeth City, N.C., where sheriff’s deputies fatally shot 42-year-old Andrew Brown Jr. a month ago.
It is unclear now what both parties would accept as a qualified immunity compromise. The 10 House Democrats did not explicitly threaten to vote against a bill if it does not weaken rules protecting officers from lawsuits. However, their opposition alone could sink legislation in the House if a bill does not win a significant share of GOP votes.
Bass — chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and the lead author of the House-passed plan — earlier this week downplayed the need to meet Biden’s deadline as long as lawmakers ultimately pass a bill. As the House will leave Washington for the next three weeks, Congress likely will not approve legislation until next month at the earliest.
“The most important thing is that we have a bill that hits the president’s desk, not the date that it does,” Bass said Tuesday.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki added Thursday that the White House is “in close touch” with lawmakers and would “certainly defer to the expectations of the key negotiators here.”
Scott has previously floated the prospect of allowing police departments, rather than individual officers, to face civil lawsuits. Asked Tuesday if the negotiators were making progress on qualified immunity, Scott said, “I think every time that we meet, we make progress.”
Some Senate Republicans have expressed concerns that scrapping qualified immunity would open officers and departments up to a rash of lawsuits. Others have contended the conviction of Chauvin on charges including second-degree murder shows the current system can hold officers accountable for misconduct.
In their letter to congressional leaders, the 10 House Democrats pointed out that guilty verdicts — or even criminal charges — are rare in cases of killings by police.
“As a result of qualified immunity, police killings regularly happen with virtual impunity. It’s long past time for that to end,” they wrote.