Democratic and Republican lawmakers appear to be at an impasse when it comes to police reform legislation. Members of both parties seem to be working hard to iron out a deal, but one major sticking point is presenting obstacles that might be insurmountable. Senators involved in the negotiations are under the gun, so to speak, because any potential bill must be hammered out by the end of June if it will have any chance of seeing the light of day before the 2022 midterm elections.
June Or Bust
In late May, Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), lead negotiator for the Republicans, told reporters that he and his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), had attempted to attain a consensus on police reform. But when asked about a timeline, Scott said: “I think it’s June or bust.”
“I think we have three weeks in June to get this done,” he added.
Scott’s comments came as Republicans and Democrats missed an informal deadline to reach a deal by May 25. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) agreed: “I think if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen before the July break.”
“The new informal deadline suggests that the issue could get pushed to the back burner until after the midterm elections if a stalemate extends into next month,” The Hill reports. The biggest hurdle is the issue of qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that protects police officers from personal liability when accused of abusing their authority. Law enforcement officials are shielded from legal repercussions unless they are found to have violated a person’s “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights.”
The Major Sticking Point
Senate Republicans are suggesting that instead of ending or altering qualified immunity for individuals, police departments should be subject to legal action in the event that an officer engages in behavior that results in death or serious injury.
“One thing that will bring about change in policing is when departments have more liability for the misconduct of officers,” Sen. Graham said. “I think having some skin in the game will drive better policing. That’s sort of what we’re trying to find, that sweet spot.”
However, the senator did stipulate that a higher bar for liability should be established to lessen the number of frivolous lawsuits. “You still got to prove constitutional deprivation [of rights], but it will require departments to up their game in terms of training because they’ll be more accountable,” he explained. “But you don’t want to open the floodgates. We’re talking about death and serious bodily injury cases, not somebody who had a bad experience with the cops.”
Democrats are none too thrilled with the idea of maintaining the current iteration of qualified immunity for officers who use excessive force. Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), the lead House negotiator, stated last month that it is essential to hold officers “accountable.” In May, ten Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), wrote a letter to top lawmakers from both parties, saying in part:
“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.”
Will Congress Meet the Deadline?
With qualified immunity being the only major obstacle to reaching a deal, one would think that working something out within the next three weeks might be a slam dunk. However, this is not an issue that will be easy to reconcile.
On the one hand, Republicans might be reluctant to acquiesce to the wishes of Democratic lawmakers on this particular provision because they fear being seen as soft on crime. Moreover, the GOP could be concerned that its constituents, many of whom are very pro-law enforcement, would balk at such a move.
Conversely, Democrats have positioned themselves as the champions of social justice, and many have taken a decidedly anti-police stance. They too might fear the consequences of allowing qualified immunity to remain in place even if police departments are more susceptible to lawsuits should one of their officers violate an individual’s rights.
Either way, it is not difficult to see that this particular problem will not be easy to address. However, if the deadline is missed and police reform is deferred, it will likely be the Democrats who suffer most as this is an issue on which they have campaigned. To put it simply, the left is the only side with something to lose if this legislation does not materialize.
Read more from Jeff Charles.