Possible movement on police reform encouraging, but qualified immunity should be codified
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Last year, after the death of George Floyd, there was a public outcry for federal legislation on police reform. So, Democrats and Republicans both wrote our ideal bills, and we both came back to the table agreeing more than we disagreed. Both Democrats and Republicans included provisions to ban chokeholds, limit no-knock warrants, limit the use of force, promote body cameras and make lynching a federal crime.

There was just one major difference between our proposals: Democrats wanted to strip law enforcement of their qualified immunity protection.

But removing qualified immunity is a non-starter for Republicans because it would result in subjecting police officers to an endless loop of meaningless lawsuits and distractions that would keep them off the streets pursuing criminals. In effect, removing qualified immunity protections would “defund the police” because officers would have to spend their income paying for legal defense on frivolous lawsuits. I felt so strongly that qualified immunity remain intact for our law enforcement agents I introduced a bill to permanently codify qualified immunity. No matter how urgently we argued, Democrats refused to back down, and nothing came of our efforts.

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But thanks to Rep. James Clyburn’s (D-S.C.) remarks Sunday, I have renewed hope that we may be able to pass something.

The House majority whip said he is willing to set aside Democrats’ aim to abolish qualified immunity for law enforcement agents and pass a police reform bill without it. I think that’s great. But, if we’re going to demand police officers take extra steps to practice safer policing, we must be able to provide them the guarantee of legal immunity from criminals who want to sue them for doing their job.

That is why I am calling on Whip Clyburn to re-enter negotiations on a police reform package if we can include language that would codify qualified immunity permanently. In fact, if he agrees to it, I would like to personally offer to co-lead those negotiations.

It is important that our law enforcement community know that we in Congress appreciate the risks they take each and every day on the job. After all, police officers’ jobs are more difficult than ever.

On top of the regular perils of the occupation, law enforcement has had to police an unprecedented number of dangerous riots in the last year. To put the magnitude of these riots in perspective — the property damage done by rioters in just 1.5 weeks last summer was the equivalent of a Category 1 hurricane. All told, 400 law enforcement officers were injured during the unrest and more died in the line of duty last year than in any year since 1974.

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Violence and unrest didn’t just happen during the riots. 2020 saw some of the highest levels of crime in modern history: 22 percent of cities with a population over 250,000 saw the most murders ever recorded, and we saw the largest one-year increase in homicides in U.S. history.

The best way to communicate to our police officers that we appreciate the sacrifices they make for our safety is to provide them legal immunity from being sued or harassed when they are following the rules and doing their job by the book. If Democrats truly want to pass a real police reform bill, this a measure they need to accept as part of any broader legislative package.

Banks is chairman of the Republican Study Committee.