With the verdict against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin now in for the murder of George Floyd, attention is turning to Congress and whether lawmakers can meet the growing demand from across the nation for meaningful changes to policing.
On Capitol Hill, the guilty verdict appeared to add a new sense of urgency around talks on the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which passed the House of Representatives in early March, but seven weeks later remains bogged down in the Senate.
The legislation would ban chokeholds and end qualified immunity for law enforcement — the legal protection for police officers that limits victims' ability to sue for misconduct. It would ban no-knock warrants in federal drug cases, mandate data collection on police encounters and create a nationwide police misconduct registry to help hold problematic officers accountable. The bill would also prohibit racial and religious profiling and redirect funding to community-based policing programs.
The bill passed the House by a 220-212 vote, mostly along party lines. But it has faced an uphill climb in the Senate, where Republicans have sought to revive a competing plan by Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., designed to diminish the use of chokeholds — but not ban them outright — and increase federal reporting requirements for use of force and no-knock warrants. Democrats blocked the plan last June, saying it did not go far enough to address racial inequality.
In the wake of the Chauvin trial, lawmakers from both parties are saying they want to see action on policing, but the path ahead seems far from certain. While Democrats technically hold the Senate majority, they would need 60 votes (all of the Democratic caucus plus 10 Republicans) to overcome a potential filibuster and pass legislation.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday after the verdict was announced, Rep. Karen Bass, who first introduced the House bill in the last Congress, said informal discussions were taking place between Democrats and Senate Republicans, but the California Democrat said she "would not call it negotiation."
Bass has said she would like to see a bill reach President Biden's desk by the one-year anniversary of Floyd's death on May 25, though it remains unclear whether Democrats will be able to secure the Republican votes they would need to reach that target.
"I am hopeful because I'm working with Sen. Scott, and Sen. Scott has received the blessing of his caucus," Bass said in an interview Wednesday with NPR's All Things Considered. "I believe that if he is supportive of the bill, that we will be able to round up the Republican senators that we need."
Scott, who has been leading talks for Republicans, expressed cautious optimism about reaching a deal on Wednesday, saying, "I think we are on the verge of wrapping this up in the next week or two."
One of the major sticking points has been qualified immunity, an issue that Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate, said he was working to resolve with Bass; Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.; and other Democrats.
"There is a way to put more of the onus or the burden on the department, or on the employer, than on the employee," Scott said. "I think that is a logical step forward and one that as I've spoken with Karen Bass over the last several weeks is something that the Democrats are quite receptive to."
He said other outstanding issues include how the legislation would deal with chokeholds and no-knock warrants.
Unlike last summer, when talks stalled in Congress, Democrats now hold the majority in the Senate and have a crucial ally in the White House. In a televised address to the nation after Tuesday's verdict, Biden said it was time for Congress to act.
"George Floyd was murdered almost a year ago," Biden said. "There's meaningful police reform legislation in his name ... legislation to tackle systemic misconduct in police departments, to restore trust between law enforcement and the people they're entrusted to serve and protect. But it shouldn't take a whole year to get this done."
Biden said he told the Floyd family that the White House would continue to fight for passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, but his administration has faced criticism for failing to detail his efforts to secure its passage.
Asked Wednesday about the president's role in the negotiations, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden plans to use his address to a joint session of Congress next week "as an opportunity to elevate this issue and talk about the importance of putting police reform measures in place." Psaki also said the administration has been in direct conversation with leaders in Congress as well as with civil rights leaders who are advocating for the bill.
"But I will also say that there are times, and this is true in diplomacy, but also true in legislating, that ... the best strategy is to provide the space for those conversations to happen privately, and that's part of our objective," she said.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Merrick Garland on Wednesday announced the opening of an investigation by the Justice Department into possible patterns of discrimination and use of excessive force by the Minneapolis Police Department — the first such "pattern or practice" investigation in the Biden administration.
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