The release of footage on Friday of the Memphis Police Department violently beating Tire Nichols, a 29-year-old black man who died of his injuries three days later, has renewed calls for federal police reform. But with the House of Representatives now in Republican hands and a deeply divided Senate, the prospect of such reform remains unlikely.
Chief among the existing proposals is the Democrats’ George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which passed the then Democratic House in 2021 without a single Republican vote, but failed in the Senate.
Ben Crump, a lawyer for the Nichols family, has publicly urged Congress to pass the bill interview with CNN Sunday that he hoped Nichols’ death would prove to be a turning point. Democrats either echoed that sentiment or rallied behind them that bill specifically or calling for further bipartisan negotiations in the hope of reaching a compromise with a chance of success.
Both Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Tim Scott (R-SC), who led failed negotiations on a police reform package in 2021, appeared open in statements Friday to give bipartisan talks another chance. Booker said that he would “never stop working to build the broad coalition” needed to push through police reform, and Scott said that Nichols’ death should be a “call to action for every legislator in our country at every level”. The Congressional Black Caucus calledalso for both a meeting with President Joe Biden and a strong push for national criminal justice reform.
Still, many Republicans have opposed key reforms proposed by Democrats, including restrictions on qualified immunity, which protects officers from certain lawsuits. Others dismissed the need for reform at the federal level altogether. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), for example, said in a interview with NBC dat: “Democrats always think it’s a new law that’s going to fix something so horrible. We sort of think that … no new law is going to do that.
While a divided Congress, especially one with a narrow majority in the Democratic Senate, makes a bipartisan police bill unlikely, new legislation is not impossible: The tragedy has led to bipartisan action on divisive issues in the recent past.
In December, two years after George Floyd was killed by police, Congress passed a law that supports de-escalation training for law enforcement officers dealing with individuals with mental health issues. And after a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, last year, Congress passed the first federal gun safety law in nearly three decades, preventing guns from falling into the hands of dangerous individuals.
Both bills were far from a panacea for the epidemics of violence they aimed to tackle, but they represented gradual progress. So far, however, further compromise on police reform has proved elusive.
Why police reform is at an impasse
Police reform has long stalled in Congress for one simple reason: disagreements between Republicans and Democrats over how comprehensive such legislation should be. In 2020, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and mass protests against law enforcement and racism, both sides introduced their own versions of legislation.
The Democratic version, the aforementioned George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, would lower the legal standard by which law enforcement officers can be prosecuted for misconduct and limit their protections against civil liability under qualified immunity, as well as the ability of federal officers to use force , no-knock warrants, chokeholds and carotid holdes. It would also establish new reporting requirements, a new national database on police misconduct and national accreditation standards for law enforcement agencies, under which officers would be trained in racial profiling, implicit bias and their duty to intervene when another officer uses excessive force, including other provisions.
The Republicans’ bill—the JUSTICE Act—focused heavily on collecting data on police use of force and more documentation of police misconduct, and was much more restrictive than the Democrats’ proposal.
Qualified immunity, in particular, has consistently been a major sticking point between the two parties, with Democrats determined to end such protections, and Republicans arguing that doing so would leave police officers too vulnerable to accountability. Under existing law, qualified immunity makes it challenging to bring civil actions against police officers for damages they have caused, unless there was a previous case where those same damages were held to be illegal or unconstitutional. As result, police officers have not been held responsible in multiple cases where they have killed people, caused serious injuries and damaged property.
A compromise put forward by Scott, although it never passed into law, was the idea that instead of holding individual officers liable for damages, police departments would be held accountable, in a way to take the pressure off individuals and yet increase responsibility. Senator Lindsey Graham, in a tweet this weekagain referred to this idea, noting that “it makes sense to hold police departments accountable”.
I am against civil lawsuits against individual agents.
However, it makes sense to hold police departments accountable and they should be held accountable for the misconduct of their officers.
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) January 29, 2023
Broadly speaking, the federal government faces limitations in the extent to which it can address police practices, as most departments operate at the state and local levels and are governed by those laws. Those limits were reflected in some similarities between the previous Democratic and Republican bills, both of which attempted to use federal dollars to encourage policy changes that the US government could not mandate. For example, both have awarded conditioned money to state and local law enforcement agencies based on whether they eliminated chokeholds.
Another major point of overlap between the two bills was the requirement that regional agencies better report the use of force to the Justice Department. This can also be a starting point for new negotiations.
Booker, Scott and former Representative Karen Bass (D-CA) — now mayor of Los Angeles — previously led Congressional negotiations on the legislation. In September 2021, talks on police reform fell through due to the disagreements between the parties. Those same dividing lines remain, and given the current makeup of Congress, it’s likely that any police reform that could pass would be much narrower and even more difficult to pass.