President Joe Biden’s call for Congress to pass police reform legislation by the anniversary of George Floyd’s killing adds urgency to the task of federal lawmakers and the Minnesota delegation to find an agreement.
Biden urged lawmakers to “find a consensus” by May 25. The bill passed by the House, dubbed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, would limit the qualified immunity that can protect officers from legal liability in civil court, ban chokeholds for federal law enforcement and make criminally prosecuting officers easier.
The proposal is dividing Congress and Minnesota’s delegation, reflecting a deeper national debate about policing. Minnesota has been at forefront of this debate since Floyd’s death nearly a year ago, but there are fresh signs of movement since the conviction two weeks ago of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of Floyd.
With the narrowest of Democratic majorities in the Senate, support from several Republicans will more than likely be necessary to pass a bill out of the chamber. But that could also mean giving up changes prized by progressives.
“It’s fine to me to make some concessions, but to make concessions to sort of eliminate the possibility of the legislation having any meaningful impact is dangerous to me,” Rep. Ilhan Omar, the Democrat who represents the district where Floyd was killed, said in an interview. “Because I don’t want us to want to pass a piece of legislation that will ultimately do nothing just so that we can say we passed something.”
What exactly a congressional compromise could look like is unclear. But the day after Biden’s speech, new signs of momentum emerged. Rep. Pete Stauber, a Republican and former Duluth police officer, participated virtually in a closed-door bipartisan discussion on police reform Thursday, according to his spokesperson.
“We will take as long as necessary to get this legislation right,” Stauber said in a statement.
Stauber and other House Republicans voted against the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act when it passed the House in early March. Stauber sponsored a police reform bill in the House, called the JUSTICE Act, which is less sweeping than the Democrats’ bill.
Stauber and an influential group of Republican legislators remain dead set against a proposal to remove what is called qualified immunity, a law that shields state and local government workers, including police officers, from personal liability while performing official duties unless they clearly violate the constitution.
Removing the provision could open new avenues for victims of police brutality or misconduct, or their families, to file lawsuits against officers and police departments. Critics say removing the provision could unleash a wave of unnecessary lawsuits and have a chilling effect on recruiting new officers.
“Any package moving forward cannot abolish qualified immunity,” Stauber said. “Removing it is a red line for me and my Republican colleagues.”
And in the Senate, the 60-vote threshold for most legislation makes any sweeping changes a tough sell, especially by Biden’s deadline.
“It’s a bold goal, but this is a time for bold action,” Sen. Tina Smith, a Democrat, said in a statement.
Rep. Dean Phillips, a Democrat, said in his own statement: “While speed is of the essence, sound policy is more important than an artificial timeline.”
Omar, meanwhile, is renewing her push for additional federal action that includes the National Police Misuse of Force Investigation Board Act. The bill outlines a new federal agency that would investigate officer-involved shootings, instances where the use of force caused “severe bodily injury in police custody” and deaths that happened while in the custody of police.
“I think that there is a real understanding that the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, although it is bold and transformative, it’s not comprehensive,” Omar said.
Getting Omar on the same page with Republicans like Stauber and Rep. Tom Emmer will be tough. Omar drew sharp criticism even from some Democrats when she became one of a few members of Congress to promote the “defund police” mantra after Floyd’s death. Former President Barack Obama and other influential Democrats said the “defund” slogan threatened to alienate scores of people who might be agreeable to some reforms.
“Efforts to reform policing should not be rushed and should include the very people keeping our communities safe; law enforcement,” said Emmer in a statement.
The day after Biden’s speech, George Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, was among the family members of Black men killed by law enforcement who visited with several lawmakers in Washington, and later met with White House officials.
“It means more to these families than anybody else because that legislation will literally have the bloodstain of their loved ones,” Floyd family attorney Benjamin Crump told reporters after a meeting that included Sen. Tim Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate.
As the leading GOP voice in Congress’s policing debate, Scott is likely key to getting a bipartisan bill through the Senate. The South Carolina Republican has been in talks with Democrats, but pointed out to reporters that he was not the one to set a deadline of May 25.
“I think the best thing we can do is keep in mind why we’re doing what we’re doing,” Scott said.
But for Minnesota’s senior senator, the president’s timeline was welcomed.
“I agree with President Biden, we must take immediate action to pass policing reform,” Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar said in a statement.
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