As Washington turns its attention to police reforms following nationwide protests over George Floyd’s death, congressional lawmakers are already at odds about the steps needed to curb police misconduct and hold law enforcement more accountable.
The issue of qualified immunity has emerged as the biggest sticking point in the GOP-controlled Senate, where support would be necessary for any related legislation to pass.
The legal doctrine of qualified immunity gives police officers a broad liability shield in courts, making it all but impossible to successfully sue police officers over claims of wrongdoing. Ending qualified immunity has become a top demand for Democrats and activists following the deaths of dozens of Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement in recent years.
“We have to ask ourselves as a society, do we want to have a nation where police officers who do really awful things cannot be held accountable?” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said Sunday on CBS News’ “Face the Nation.”
The Supreme Court on Monday turned down reviewing a host of petitions that challenged the doctrine of qualified immunity. Only one justice ― conservative stalwart Clarence Thomas ― dissented. The lone Black justice on the court reiterated his opposition to qualified immunity, writing that he would allow challenges to proceed given his “strong doubts” about the doctrine.
Although there is some bipartisan support for at least reexamining the issue of qualified immunity, most congressional Republicans oppose ending it outright.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said in a separate “Face the Nation” interview on Sunday that ending qualified immunity for police officers is “off the table” for his party, citing opposition from police unions and President Donald Trump. He called the proposal a “poison pill” in any future discussions.
Leadership has tasked Scott, the only Black GOP senator, with crafting the Senate Republican police reform proposal. He’s expected to unveil the legislation, including a modest list of reforms, this week.
Democrats would go further than Scott’s expected proposal, however, by explicitly banning the use of chokeholds, including the kind used by a police officer in the death of Floyd last month. The would also prohibit no-knock warrants in drug cases, a tactic that led to the death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, in March.
“This is not a time for lowest-common-denominator, watered-down reforms,” Booker said. “It’s a time to stop the problem.”
House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy also told reporters last week that he supports a ban on chokeholds, boosting chances that some kind of measure can pass the lower chamber.
Complicating the situation is an increasingly erratic Trump, who is facing reelection with a recession on his hands and a sinking approval rating. The president and his top aides have steered clear of discussing particular police reform initiatives, only making it clear that they oppose defunding law enforcement, which many activists have called for.
Trump could endorse whatever deal Congress comes up with, or he could blow up the talks by setting red lines Republicans won’t be willing to cross ― as he has done in the past on immigration, health care and gun control.
Even without federal action, reforms are taking hold in many police departments across the country. Some cities have already banned chokeholds and neck restraints like the one used on Floyd, while others are moving to shift resources away from law enforcement and toward other public safety and health initiatives.