Active discussions are underway in Congress over a bipartisan bill to overhaul laws surrounding policing as the Biden administration made the decision earlier this week to let Congress tackle the issue, standing down on its campaign promise to create a White House commission to study the issue.
The conversation took on new urgency in recent days after the police shooting death of Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, outside Minneapolis, just miles away from the courtroom where police officer Derek Chauvin is on trial for the murder of George Floyd. Floyd’s death sparked protests and a nationwide reckoning on systemic racial injustice last summer, with protests flaring again this week, turning violent at times.
It also comes amid the release of stunning video from a December 2020 traffic stop where two Virginia officers used are alleged to have used excessive force and threatened an Army Lieutenant during a routine traffic stop, according to a new lawsuit, further highlighting the risks of driving while Black in the US.
“We have got to figure out a solution to this issue and I absolutely feel the pressure of all of these events and I think that the other people that are concerned about this issue feel that same pressure,” Rep. Karen Bass, a California Democrat, told CNN.
Bass’ bill, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, passed the House without any Republican support in March.
The George Floyd Act would set up a national registry of police misconduct to stop officers from evading consequences for their actions by moving to another jurisdiction. It would ban racial and religious profiling by law enforcement at the federal, state and local levels, and it would overhaul qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that critics say shields law enforcement from accountability. It also bans chokeholds and no-knock warrants.
Bass told CNN in March the group discussing bipartisan action is working through “some of the thorny issues” in their discussions over a potential Senate bill.
“The informal discussions still continue,” Bass told CNN on Wednesday. “No formal negotiations are happening, but I’m hoping we get there soon,” she said. “Informal does not mean there is not progress.”
In addition to Bass, those discussions include Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and the White House.
Rep. John Katko, a Republican from New York, confirmed Scott and Booker met with a working group made up of members of the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus on Wednesday for discussions.
“We’re still working on a package,” Katko said. “The Senate is going to take a look at what we’re doing and we’re going to go from there,” Katko told CNN.
Eyes on Scott
Key to these discussions with Bass and others now is Scott, who indicated progress is being made.
“I think we’re making progress on the parameters, we’ll see,” Scott told CNN earlier this week when asked if there had been progress made in the last month of conversations, adding that he “spoke with Karen Bass ten minutes ago.”
Bass praised Scott as a “great colleague,” adding he “has been a wonderful ally and partner.”
In June 2020, Scott introduced the JUSTICE Act in the Senate, a police reform bill with provisions on data on incidents of police brutality being reported to the FBI, deescalation and intervention training via grants, and officer misconduct transparency via preservation of records on the local level.
That bill was blocked by Senate Democrats later that month over key areas of disagreement on state action versus Democrats’ preference for national standards, as well as Democrats’ desire for a ban on chokeholds and an overhaul of qualified immunity for cops to make it easier to sue them in civil court.
Asked this week by CNN’s Manu Raju if he sees a potential compromise on qualified immunity, Scott told CNN, “We’ll find out soon,” adding, “I’m optimistic still.”
The White House view
Despite more than a year of inaction, the White House views police reform as an urgent priority, something they are tracking in Congress and engaging with when necessary.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki signaled the White House is letting the legislative process play out on Capitol Hill, voicing support for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, but suggesting an openness to adjustments to get Senate Republicans on board.
Asked whether the White House was open to the JUSTICE Act, Psaki said Tuesday that the White House’s preferred legislative vehicle was the George Floyd Act that passed the House last month. There is zero indication the House version of the bill would be able to garner the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate.
“I know Senator Scott, Senator Booker, and others are in close discussion and coordination about what a path forward may look like,” Psaki told reporters. “We certainly understand that there could be changes to proposals that have been put forward to date.”
She continued, “We believe that the George Floyd Act has a lot of the components that will help rebuild the trust, help address, put in place many of the reforms that are, frankly, long overdue. But we also recognize that democracy in action means changes take place, so we’ll have to see what the discussions look like, and whether the President could support any changes that would be made through that process.”
As those negotiations take place on the Hill, White House officials from the Office of Legislative Affairs, as well as Domestic Policy Council director Susan Rice and Office of Public Engagement director Cedric Richmond, a former member of Congress, are involved in discussions with members from both parties.
Psaki described the White House as “very engaged” with Congress.
“Ultimately, it will be up to them to determine how they can negotiate and come to conclusion on a package that there can be enough support to move forward,” she said Wednesday, an acknowledgment that any legislation reaching the President’s desk will require support from Republicans.
Campaign promise, refocused
Amid these legislative efforts, the White House also stood down on a campaign promise from Biden to create a police reform commission, something that advocates conveyed to the White House could be counterproductive to getting the George Floyd Act passed.
“Based on close, respectful consultation with partners in the civil rights community, the administration made the considered judgment that a police commission, at this time, would not be the most effective way to deliver on our top priority in this area, which is to sign the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act into law,” Rice said in a statement Monday.
The decision to stand down on a commission was made after “close collaboration” with the civil rights community, including the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund and The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, as well as conversations with civil rights leaders and police unions, a source familiar with the administration’s efforts said.
The civil rights organizations, the source said, shared with the White House that they did not want a commission because it could take months to be established and produce a report. There were also concerns it would likely be duplicative of Obama and Trump-era commissions. The administration also received feedback, the source said, that a commission “would run real risk of undermining momentum and passage” for the George Floyd Act.
There are other mechanisms the White House is looking to use toward changing policing laws and regulations, as well. Psaki noted Wednesday that funding for local police departments and municipalities to address reducing police brutality was part of Biden’s discretionary spending request sent to Congress last week.
“He continues to believe that giving police departments the resource they need to implement meaningful reforms and conditioning federal dollars on completing those reforms, is the appropriate and effective step,” she told reporters, adding that the discretionary spending guidance provides funding with specific requirements on diversity and accountability.
That funding still needs to go through the appropriations process, with lawmakers just beginning what is expected to be lengthy spending negotiations.
Biden projected some optimism Tuesday that negotiations would be fruitful.
Asked by reporters whether people should have hope that there can be change in the way African Americans interact with police in the US, he said, “A lot. And I’ll tell you later.”
This story has been updated with additional developments Thursday.