WASHINGTON – House Democrats passed the most ambitious effort in decades to overhaul policing nationwide, avoiding a potential clash with moderates in their own party who were wary of reigniting the “defund the police” debate they say hurt them during last fall's election.
Approved 220-212 late Wednesday, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is named for the man whose killing by police in Minnesota last Memorial Day sparked demonstrations nationwide. It would ban chokeholds and “qualified immunity” for law enforcement while creating national standards for policing in a bid to bolster accountability, and was first approved last summer only to stall in the then-Republican controlled Senate. The bill is supported by President Joe Biden.
“My city is not an outlier, but rather an example of the inequalities our country has struggled with for centuries,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., who represents the Minneapolis area near where Floyd died.
Floyd’s family watched the emotional debate from a nearby House office building and said “defunding the police” is not what the legislation is about.
“We just want to be treated equal. We just want to deescalate situations,” said Brandon Williams, Floyd’s nephew. “We want to feel safe when we encounter law enforcement. We’re not asking for anything extra. We’re not asking for anything that we don’t feel is right.”
Democrats hustled to pass the bill a second time, hoping to combat police brutality and institutional racism after the deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans following interactions with law enforcement — images of which were sometimes jarringly captured on video.
But the debate over legislation turned into a political liability for Democrats as Republicans seized on calls by some activists and progressives to “defund the police” to argue that supporters were intent on slashing police force budgets.
Though this bill doesn't do that, moderate Democrats said the charge helped drive Democratic defeats in swing districts around the country last November.
“No one ran on ‘defund the police,’ but all you have to do is make that a political weapon,” said Teas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar.
Republicans quickly revived the “defund the police” criticisms before the vote. “Our law enforcement officers need more funding not less,” Rep. Scott Fitzgerald, R-Wis.
Still, even the House’s more centrist lawmakers, some representing more conservative districts, ultimately backed the bill.
“Black Americans have endured generations of systemic racism and discrimination for too long, and this has been painfully evident in their treatment by law enforcement,” said Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash, who chairs the moderate New Democrat Coalition.
That endorsement came despite the bill’s prohibitions on so-called qualified immunity, which shields law enforcement from certain lawsuits and is one of the main provisions that will likely need to be negotiated in any compromise with the Senate. Another possible point of contention is provisions easing standards for prosecution of law enforcement officers accused of wrongdoing.
Police unions and other law enforcement groups have argued that, without legal protections, fear of lawsuits will stop people from becoming police officers — even though the measure permits suits only against law enforcement agencies, rather than all public employees.
California Rep. Karen Bass, who authored the bill, understands the challenge some House members face in supporting it.
“My colleagues, several of them, I do not make light of the difficulty they had getting reelected because of the lie around defunding the police,” Bass said.
She called provisions limiting qualified immunity as well as those changing standards for prosecution “the only measures that hold police accountable — that will actually decrease the number of times we have to see people killed on videotape.”
Civil rights attorneys Ben Crump and Antonio Romanucci released a statement on behalf of the Floyd family saying the House was “responding to the mandate issued by thousands of Americans who took to the streets last summer to raise their voices for change.”
“This represents a major step forward to reform the relationship between police officers and communities of color and impose accountability on law enforcement officers whose conscious decisions preserve the life or cause the death of Americans, including so many people of color,” Crump and Romanucci said. “Now we urge the Senate to follow suit.”
That may be a taller order. Even though Democrats now control both chambers of Congress, it seems unlikely the bill could pass the Senate without substantial changes to win GOP support.
Bass acknowledged the challenges Democrats faced last November — and may likely see again — when former President Donald Trump's reelection campaign and other leading Republicans crowded the airwaves with images of cities around the country burning. But she said those attacks, like much of the opposition to the bill, are built on racism, promoting fears about how “the scary Black people are going to attack you if you try to rein in the police.”
“That's as old as apple pie in our history,” she said. “So do you not act because of that?”
Still, Bass conceded that changes are likely to come if the measure is to win the minimum 60 votes it will need to advance in the Senate, which is now split 50-50. She said she'd been in contact with South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, the only Black Republican in the chamber, and was confident he would help deliver some GOP support.
Scott said this week that the legislation's sticking points were qualified immunity and prosecutorial standards and that in both areas, “We have to protect individual officers.”
“That's a red line for me,” Scott said, adding, “Hopefully we'll come up with something that actually works.”
Lisa Mascaro contributed.