What is the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and can Congress pass it?

Lawmakers failed to meet Joe Biden’s deadline for comprehensive police reform legislation. Republicans say the bill is a ‘nonstarter’ while families of victims of police violence demand action

Alex Woodward
New York
Tuesday 07 February 2023 22:38 GMT
Tyre Nichol’s mother says ‘blood on the hands’ of those who don’t pass George Floyd bill

In his first address to a joint session of Congress, President Joe Biden gave Congress a deadline: Pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act by the one-year anniversary of his murder.

The president urged lawmakers to send the bill to his desk by 25 May, 2021, one year after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered Floyd, whose death was captured on bystander video and sparked nationwide protests calling for justice for the killings of Black people by law enforcement and demanding police reforms.

But an expansive policing bill in the hands of Congress – which sought to overhaul use-of-force policies nationwide – did not meet the president’s deadline. Bipartisan negotiations stalled. And from 2021 through the end of 2022, more than 2,200 Americans were killed by police.

The death of Tyre Nichols, who was brutally beaten by a group of Memphis Police Department officers three days before his death in hospital in January, has sparked a renewed effort to pass the legislation.

But it faces even more hurdles in 2023 than it did when it first passed a Democratically controlled House of Representatives two years ago.

A week after Nichols’ funeral, where his family and civil rights leaders called on lawmakers to revive the bill, President Biden will once again face the nation in a primetime address that advocates are hoping will address police reform. The president’s State of the Union on 7 February will also include several families of victims of police violence in attendance.

Last year, two years after Floyd’s death, President Biden was joined by members of the Floyd family for a signing of an extensive executive order on police reform, applauded by civil rights groups as a foundation on which to build stronger protections against police violence.

But the White House has stressed that any executive measure on police reform is not a substitute for congressional action, and the administration and Democratic leaders are calling on Congress to reintroduce the bill.

In surprise remarks at Nichols’ funeral, Vice President Kamala Harris – who co-authored the bill while she was a senator from California – said to “let the memory of Tyre shine a light on the path toward peace and justice”.

Nichols’ mother RowVaughn Wells also pleaded with lawmakers to pass the bill.

“If we don’t, that next child that dies,” she said, speaking through tears, “that blood will be on their hands”.

What’s in the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act?

Supportive lawmakers, criminal justice advocates and families of victims of police violence did not see the bill as a panacea for rooting out bias and systemic abuse among the nation’s police departments, but it represented an important tool for accountability.

A crucial component of the bill would overhaul the legal liability shield for individual police officers – known as “qualified immunity” – that would theoretically make it easier to bring civil lawsuits against them.

That decades-old doctrine provides broad protections for police officers, and Republican lawmakers have argued that weakening those protections could expose them and their agencies to excessive lawsuits.

Despite GOP campaign messaging and Republican floor speeches, the bill does not “defund” police departments.

Why did the bill fail?

The Democratically controlled House of Representatives passed a version of the bill without any Republican support on a vote of 220 to 212 in 2021.

A similar bill was passed in 2020 but languished in a then-GOP-controlled Senate.

A bipartisan group including Republican Senator Tim Scott, Democratic Senator Cory Booker and Democratic US Rep Karen Bass – who has since left office after her election to mayor of Los Angeles – were tasked with leading negotiations over the Senate version of the bill.

A compromise bill that was offered up by Republicans would gut any reform on qualified immunity proposed by Democratic lawmakers. Instead, it would retain immunity provisions for individual officers and allow victims or people alleging police misconduct to sue their police departments.

In his address to a joint session of Congress in April 2021, President Biden told lawmakers to “come together to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the people they serve, to root out systemic racism in our criminal justice system, and to enact police reform in George Floyd’s name that passed the House already.”

“I know Republicans have their own ideas and are engaged in the very productive discussions with Democrats in the Senate,” he said. “We need to work together to find a consensus. But let’s get it done next month, by the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death.”

Less than six months later, negotiations hit a wall.

Senator Booker told reporters at the time that the group wasn’t making “any more meaningful progress on establishing really substantive reform to America’s policing.”

“The effort from the very beginning was to get police reform that would raise professional standards, police reform that would create a lot more transparency and then police reform that would create accountability,” he said. “And we were not able to come to an agreement on those three big areas.”

Meanwhile, the White House quietly abandoned plans for a national commission on police oversight, first proposed during Mr Biden’s presidential campaign in 2020. Domestic Policy Council director Susan Rice said that a commission would not be the “most effective way” to implement reforms, based on “close, respectful consultation” with civil rights groups.

What are the bill’s chances?

With a majority in the House and strong enough numbers to the Senate to obstruct critical parts of the Biden agenda, Republicans are likely to shut down any bill named in honour of George Floyd that includes qualified immunity reform and other key measures approved by Democratic lawmakers.

Republican Senator Tim Scott, who was part of a bipartisan group of lawmakers working on the bill’s text, has called resurrecting the legislation a “nonstarter”.

“Resurrecting the House progressives’ police reform bill is a nonstarter. I’ve been working toward common ground solutions that actually have a shot at passing,” he said on 2 February.

He said that those “solutions” would “increase funding and training to make sure only the best wear the badge”.

“There’s no perfect bill,” Democratic US Rep James Clyburn, a key Biden ally in Congress, told The Washington Post.

“To keep trying to get the perfect piece of legislation rather than a good piece of legislation – I just don’t know if that’s a good thing to do,” he said. “We may not get everything that we need or everything that we want in one fell swoop, but we need to get this done.”

One day after Nichols’ funeral, President Biden met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus in the Oval Office.

“My hope is this dark memory spurs some action that we’ve all been fighting for,” Mr Biden said before the meeting began. “How can we make some progress on police reform of consequence and violence in our communities?”

Democratic US Rep Steven Horsford, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said the death of Nichols “is yet another example of why we do need action.”

“We need your help to make sure we can get the legislative actions that are necessary to save lives and to make public safety the priority that it needs to be for all communities,” he told the president.

A description of the meeting provided by the White House said that the discussion “focused on important reforms that have already been implemented” under the president’s executive action, including a federal ban on chokeholds, restrictions on no-knock warrants, and requirements that federal law enforcement use body-worn cameras.

President Biden and Vice President Harris told lawmakers that “no executive action can substitute for federal legislation, and the necessary changes at the state and local level will require Congress to act,” according to the White House.

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