Today marks the one-year anniversary of the death of George Floyd who was murdered by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis. Chauvin who is white knelt on the neck of Floyd, who was Black and unarmed, for more than nine minutes last year. Although Chauvin was convicted, the horrific death of Floyd was not enough to motivate the Senate to pass a police reform bill in Floyd’s name by today as President Joseph Biden hoped for.
On Friday, Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that progress was being made with the bill when she was asked what the new pressure point would be if it was not passed in the Senate by the one-year anniversary.
“All of the negotiators are continuing to press forward on working to find common grand — ground to get this done. The President wants to sign it into law,” she said according to an online White House transcript.
“So, you know, we are not going to slow our efforts to get this done, but we can also be transparent about the fact that it’s going to take a little bit more time — that sometimes that happens and that’s okay,” she continued.
During President Biden’s first address to Congress on April 28 he encouraged Americans to come together and for Congress to act in the name of justice.
“We have all seen the knee of injustice on the neck of Black America. Now is our opportunity to make real progress… 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. Let’s get it done next month, by the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death. The country supports this reform. Congress should act,” President Biden said according to an online White House transcript.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is a police reform bill largely authored by members of the Congressional Black Caucus [CBC] that will increase accountability for law enforcement misconduct, enhance transparency and data collection, and eliminate discriminatory policing practices such as banning chokeholds and no-knock warrants, according to a summary of the bill on the congressional website.
The bill passed in the House by a vote of 220-212 in March but has stalled in the Senate. There, 60 votes are needed for the bill to pass and land on President Biden’s desk. With an even split in the Senate and considering all Democrats are ready to support the bill, 10 Republicans would have to join them.
So, why is the bill stalling in the Senate? Grassroots Wire spoke to a civil-rights lawyer and a civil rights advocate to discuss the basics of the bill, its challenges and how the bill could be bolstered to produce long lasting change for public safety.
One of the key features of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is ending qualified immunity which is the practice of not suing police officers for violating a person’s constitutional rights if those rights were not “clearly established” by law. Twitter user Julian Sanchez broke it down this way as written on the Lawfare website: “the first person to litigate a specific harm is out of luck” since the “first time around, the right violated won’t be ‘clearly established.’”
Still, qualified immunity was designed with a dual purpose to balance “two important interests—the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably,” according to the Legal Information Institute website by Cornell Law School website.
National Black Justice Coalition Deputy Executive Director Victoria Kirby said that ending qualified immunity is the most important piece around police accountability and police murder of civilians since it “has allowed officers to get off without being convicted time and time again.”
She continued to say that although qualified immunity started off as a reasonable defense decades ago when taking honest mistakes into account; over time racial bias came into the picture which resulted in more deaths but less justice.
“Thankfully, Officer Derek Chauvin has been convicted on all three charges and found guilty. But most often we have seen from Rodney King to the cop who killed Tamir Rice; the 12-year-old boy who was playing with his toy gun, is that they [law enforcement] were able to use this concept to get away with murder.
“As a mother, the Tamir Rice situation was the most profound, because he wasn’t even pointing the gun at anyone. He was playing with the toy gun in the park and the police came out and shot him within seconds. That’s not what qualified immunity was designed to protect from,” Kirby lamented.
In addition to reforming qualified immunity, this Policing Act will change the criminal intent requirement from willful to knowing or reckless in the conviction of a police officer on the federal level.
Civil Rights Attorney Matt Manning who is also a partner at the firm, in Texas says this attempt to revise the law is quite significant.
“The change in the law is going to make it where the prosecutor would no longer have to prove that the officer’s purpose in doing the action was willful, that they intended it to cause the consequence that came about,” explained Manning who was a former prosecutor.
“Now, with knowingly or recklessly, it lowers the standard because it allows a prosecutor to prove that an officer was doing something that he or she either knew would bring about the consequence or should have known the consequence would come about,” he continued.
At the same time Manning wonders, how impactful this change would be if the state legislature does not follow suit with comparable laws.
“The question is just how outsize the effect will be if its only prosecutors on the federal level. That’s why I say state courts is what would have the larger impact because that’s where the majority of these officers who are involved [in police misconduct] are employed, on the state and local levels. Not at the federal level,” Manning said.
As for funding changes, the bill establishes public safety innovation grants for community-based organizations to help “develop concrete, just public safety approaches,” as stated in a CBC fact sheet about the bill.
“If we are going to invest money in community and public safety, it should be to build a new approach. The approach that we have right now was built during the Jim Crow Era and it’s not surprising that it results in Black bodies being disproportionately murdered for no reason. We need a system that is built in who we are as a country today and not who we were yesterday,” Kirby urged.
Predictably Republicans have opposed the bill for several reasons, including the claim that all these changes may make police officers unsafe. Both Manning and Kirby feel those sentiments are misguided and that this bill creates a great foundation where victims of police brutality can get justice.
“Overall, as a society, we don’t have a belief that police officers don’t need to be safe. I think that the better question is what are we doing to make sure as a society… that what the officer has done is beyond the pale, that there is actually a cognizable path for justice for victims and plaintiffs. I think this [bill] intends to disincentivize police violence but not while divesting the ability of the officer to be safe. Because he or she is obviously a societal value, and they need to be safe,” Manning said.
“But the public also needs to have confidence that where there is a circumstance where an officer has gone too far, there needs to be accountability. Because up until this point, I do not think the prevailing belief is that that has been the case,” Manning continued.
Kirby also added that bolstering the bill with proposed legislation from the BREATHE Act by activists at the Movement for Black Lives like prohibiting federal law enforcement from using military grade weapons and equipment and destroying such weaponry currently used by police forces.
“The National Black Justice Coalition is in support of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and we hope that the bill is able to be strengthened in its process in the US Senate and that provisions from the BREATHE Act will make its way into the final bill as a means of strengthening public safety in this country,” Kirby said.