Congress, states refocus on police reforms after Chauvin guilty verdict

Demonstrators display placards while marching during a protest, Wednesday, April 21, 2021, in the Nubian Square neighborhood, of Boston, a day after a guilty verdict was announced at the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the 2020 death of George Floyd. Chauvin has been convicted of murder and manslaughter in the death of Floyd. The demonstrators called for police reforms and racial equality.
Demonstrators display placards while marching during a protest, Wednesday, April 21, 2021, in the Nubian Square neighborhood, of Boston, a day after a guilty verdict was announced at the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the 2020 death of George Floyd. Chauvin has been convicted of murder and manslaughter in the death of Floyd. The demonstrators called for police reforms and racial equality.

Credit: Steven Senne

Credit: Steven Senne

Lawmakers report some progress on George Floyd Justice in Policing Act

As police shootings continue to claim the lives of Black Americans, Congress has turned its focus to changing the nation’s policing laws, and as of Thursday negotiations are narrowing on a compromise for a sweeping overhaul, though passage remains uncertain.

Heeding President Joe Biden’s admonition that the guilty verdict in George Floyd’s death is “not enough” for a nation confronting a legacy of police violence, lawmakers of both parties said they are prioritizing long-stalled legislation and are closer than ever to a consensus days after a Minneapolis jury found former Officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death.

Tuesday’s verdict launched “a new phase of a long struggle to bring justice to America,” declared Rep. Karen Bass, D-California, in urging passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. “This is the human rights issue in the United States of America.”

Why it matters

The revived effort, led by Black lawmakers including Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, comes at a pivotal moment. The nation is on edge over the Floyd case, the deaths of other Black Americans — including a 16-year-old girl brandishing a knife about the time the Minneapolis verdict was announced and an unarmed Black man who was shot and killed by police in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, on Wednesday. Both shootings come on the heels of nearly a year of protests accusing police of brutal actions that often go unseen.

Derek Chauvin’s new booking photo after his conviction this week.
Derek Chauvin’s new booking photo after his conviction this week.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

The guilty verdict for Chauvin was a rare occurrence, not least because in this case an officer’s actions were recorded by a bystander and shown to the jury in court. That followed months of the video being played repeatedly on TV, imprinted in the minds of Americans everywhere.

With political pressure mounting on all sides, Biden is urging Congress to plunge back into policing legislation.

“We can’t stop here,” he said Tuesday after the verdict.

The latest

Behind the scenes, Scott briefed key Republican senators on Wednesday, updating his colleagues on quiet negotiations that have been underway with Democrats for nearly two months. He told reporters he expected to wrap up those talks with the Democrats within two weeks.

“We’ve made tremendous progress,” Scott said on Capitol Hill.

Democrats say they are ready.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus walk to make a statement on the verdict in the murder trial of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd. From left are Rep. Karen Bass, D-California., Rep. Andre Carson, D-Indiana, Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Michigan, Rep. Cori Bush, D-Missouri, and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus walk to make a statement on the verdict in the murder trial of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd. From left are Rep. Karen Bass, D-California., Rep. Andre Carson, D-Indiana, Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Michigan, Rep. Cori Bush, D-Missouri, and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas.

Credit: J. Scott Applewhite

Credit: J. Scott Applewhite

“This has to come to a stop,” said Rep. James Clyburn, D-South Carolina, the highest-ranking Black elected official in Congress, after the Chauvin verdict.

He and others, including Scott, have told wrenching stories of their own experiences with law enforcement well into their adult lives as elected officials serving in the most powerful corridors of power.

Previously

Congress struggled with a police overhaul bill last summer in the immediate aftermath of Floyd’s death, but the legislation went nowhere after Democrats and Republicans could not agree to a compromise package.

Reform measures in states

Meanwhile, a wave of police reforms have been written into law in dozens of states, from changes in use-of-force policies to greater accountability for officers and addressing racial inequities.

But those changes mask a more complicated legislative legacy to a movement that many hoped would produce generational change as many states have done little or nothing around police and racial justice reforms, and several have moved in the opposite direction.

States have passed over 140 police oversight bills since the killing of George Floyd, increasing accountability and overhauling rules on the use of force — but the calls for change continue.
States have passed over 140 police oversight bills since the killing of George Floyd, increasing accountability and overhauling rules on the use of force — but the calls for change continue.

Over the past year, at least 36 states have signed into law measures that would reform some police practices, according to an Associated Press analysis of data from the National Conference of State Legislatures. The new laws come from at least 1,800 police reform bills filed in statehouses across the U.S. since Floyd’s killing, with the majority being introduced this year.

The proposals include statewide bans on chokeholds, limits on no-knock warrants, ending qualified immunity for officers and restrictions on use of tear gas and other crowd-control techniques. Statehouses also have focused on changing how fatal police shootings are investigated.

Many of the successful bills had bipartisan support, but sweeping reforms have been more difficult, even in heavily Democratic states, in part because of opposition from police unions. Several states have moved in the opposite direction, expanding the rights of officers or passing legislation that targets protesters like those involved in last summer’s demonstrations.

George Floyd Justice in Policing Act

The House, led by Democrats, has now twice approved a sweeping overhaul, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, that would be the most substantial federally ordered changes to policing in a generation.

The bill would allow police officers to be sued and damages awarded for violating people’s constitutional rights, limiting “qualified immunity” protections now in place for law enforcement.

The legislation would ban the use of chokeholds and would create a national databases of police misconduct in an effort to prevent “bad apple” officers from being hired by other departments.

A Republican bill from Scott does not go as far as the House-passed measure. It was blocked last year by Senate Democrats, a fact that Republicans are emphasizing.

The GOP’s Justice Act would step up compliance by law enforcement in submitting use-of-force reports to a national database. It also would require compliance reports for no-knock warrants, like the kind officers used to enter the residence when Breonna Taylor was killed in Kentucky.

The Democratic and Republican bills do share some provisions, including a measure making lynching a federal hate crime.

Talks in recent weeks have centered on one of the main differences, the limits on the public’s ability to sue law enforcement officers under “qualified immunity.” One alternative being discussed would allow police departments, rather than individual officers, to be held liable.

“I think that is a logical step forward,” said Scott, putting more of the burden on the department rather than the officer.

What’s next?

Biden is sure to speak about policing issues in his address to a joint session of Congress next Wednesday. Though he is eager to get a police reform bill on his desk, press secretary Jen Psaki says the decision on what legislation is passed and when is the responsibility of Congress.

The White House is giving lawmakers “space” to hash out details, Psaki said.

Not that Biden is steering totally clear. Senior administration leaders are consulting with members of Congress, as is the president, who has held separate Oval Office meetings with lawmakers. Aides are also working with civil rights organizations and other outside groups to pressure Congress to act.

And on Wednesday, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the Department of Justice is opening a sweeping investigation into Minneapolis policing. It will examine whether there is a “pattern or practice” of unlawful or unconstitutional actions and could result in changes.

But in the aftermath of Floyd’s death and others, some leading Black advocates say neither bill being discussed in Congress goes far enough to stem a national history of police brutality.

In the hours after Chauvin’s conviction, activists across the nation were shifting their attention toward Democratic leaders who they say must be held accountable for campaign promises that were made about addressing police abuse and other pressing issues facing Black Americans.

Reform can’t “happen around the edges,” said Maurice Mitchell, a Movement for Black Lives strategist and national director of the Working Families Party.

Other proposals

The Movement for Black Lives, which has opposed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, is pressing officials to consider its BREATHE Act legislation, which would completely overhaul the nation’s criminal justice system and shift funding toward communities, he said.

“Democrats should be on notice that talk is cheap and that Black folks are very clear that our vote put them over the top and put them in the position to govern,” Mitchell said. “And now they need to govern and lead with the clarity that it is the Black community, the Black vote and Black movements that were an essential part of the electoral coalition that brought them into this position.”

Where states stand

Across the country, Chauvin’s murder conviction has renewed calls for even more policing reforms.

The movement will test over how far states will go in addressing police brutality and systemic racism in everything from education to health care to housing. Some seized on the verdict to promote legislative action or calls for change.

In Texas, where Floyd was raised and laid to rest, state Sen. Royce West this year helped introduce the “George Floyd Act” to overhaul policing. But the bill has languished for weeks after getting one hearing, and West, one of the state’s most prominent Black lawmakers, acknowledges it faces long odds in the Republican-dominated Legislature.

“We have members of the Senate that just refuse to pass a bill with his name on it,” he said.

He now hopes to take a different approach in hopes of getting a win — stand-alone bills without Floyd’s name that would make piecemeal changes such as banning police chokeholds.

“You have to ask yourself whether or not you want symbolism over substance,” West said. “And so if you don’t have the votes to pass a bill named after George Floyd, then we got to make certain that we do some single-shot bills.”

Utah, Ohio, Nebraska

On Wednesday, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, signed a policing bill that will require officers to report any use of force and when they point a weapon at someone. Another GOP governor, Ohio’s Mike DeWine, announced a legislative proposal to boost police oversight. And in Nebraska, the Legislature advanced a bill requiring greater law enforcement accountability and training, especially on how to de-escalate conflicts.

California

Ahead of the verdict Tuesday, members of California’s Legislative Black Caucus gathered outside the Capitol to highlight police and criminal justice reform bills they hope to advance. Several of the proposals, including the creation of a system to decertify officers accused of misconduct, failed last year.

“The time is now for us to act,” said state Sen. Steven Bradford, a Democrat who chairs the caucus. “No more kneeling and social media posts — we’ve had enough of the performative acts. Real police reform is needed now.”

Maryland, Washington

Earlier this month, Maryland lawmakers overrode the governor’s veto to repeal what had been the nation’s first Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, replacing those protections with procedures that give civilians a role in the disciplinary process. Washington lawmakers, over some objections from law enforcement unions and Republicans, are moving ahead with nearly a dozen bills overhauling police tactics, use of force and oversight.

Oklahoma

In Oklahoma, where proposals to ban the use of police chokeholds never received a hearing in the GOP-controlled Legislature, a new law that targets protests grants immunity to motorists who kill or injure rioters. Other legislation targeting protesters has advanced in Arizona, Florida and Tennessee.

“These anti-protest bills were flying off the floor,” said state Rep. Regina Goodwin, a Democrat from Tulsa. “What that says to me is that Oklahoma is either not aware of the critical issues that America faces as it relates to racism and police abuse, or folks are looking the other way because they can.”

Georgia

In a reaction to calls for redirecting some police funding to social services, Georgia’s Republican-majority Legislature passed a bill aimed at preventing cities and counties from cutting police budgets by more than 5% a year, after Atlanta and another local government debated but rejected sharper cuts.

New Hampshire

One of the most hotly contested bills in the Republican-controlled New Hampshire Legislature this year would prohibit teaching about systemic racism and sexism in public schools and state-funded programs. Under the so-called “divisive topics” bill, which has already passed one chamber, prohibited subjects include the notion that New Hampshire or the U.S. are fundamentally racist or sexist and that individuals are inherently oppressive due to their race or gender.

“If that’s the assumption we are going to make as a society, then we are never going to get to unity,” said Republican state Rep. Keith Ammon.

Democratic state Rep. Latha Mangipudi called the bill a blow to diversity and democracy: “This refusal of truth is insidious because it denies the reality we see in our own lives, that we experience ourselves, that I have experienced,” she told WMUR-TV earlier this month.

North Carolina

In states with divided governments, Democratic governors have had limited success in getting specific changes but have faced opposition to more wide-ranging police and racial equity reforms.

In North Carolina, the Republican-controlled legislature is expected to advance measures focused on removing problem officers and helping police with mental health needs. But lawmakers will likely avoid the larger recommendations from a task force commissioned last year by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to address racial inequities in policing, criminal justice and the court system.

It remains to be seen what if any impact Wednesday’s police shooting of an unarmed Black man in Elizabeth City would have on the planned measures.

Wisconsin

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, on Wednesday ordered the Wisconsin State Patrol and other state law enforcement agencies to update their use-of-force policies to bar chokeholds, unless they are a last resort. He acted after the Republican-controlled Legislature ignored a police reform package he proposed last year after Floyd’s killing.

Minnesota

In Minnesota, Democratic Gov. Tim Walz said after Tuesday’s verdicts that he’s ready to go on the offensive if there is no progress toward racial equity and police accountability. He said Minnesota’s politically divided Legislature gives the state a “golden opportunity” to show the world “that equity, decency and humanity should know no political boundary.”

“I will burn my political capital on this,” he said.

ArLuther Lee compiled and contributed to this report for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Our staff typically adds supplementary information to reports by The Associated Press to emphasize angles that are important to our readers.

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