Police reform talks ramp up amid pressure from Biden, families

Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.)
Greg Nash

Police reform talks are heating up on Capitol Hill as lawmakers face growing pressure from President Biden and the families of victims to reach an agreement, nearly a year after negotiations first unraveled.

Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), who have been the core negotiators on police reform, convened a broader bipartisan, bicameral group for the first time Thursday, marking an escalation in the talks.

In addition to the three Black lawmakers, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and House lawmakers including Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) joined Thursday’s meeting either in person or through Zoom.

Lawmakers agreed that they were making progress toward a deal and are discussing potential compromise language on sticky issues that derailed police reform last year following George Floyd’s murder by a police officer.

“I think we are making progress and I’m really encouraged,” Booker told reporters after the meeting, adding that he thought there was “really good momentum” in the talks.

Scott added that he was “optimistic” and they would reconvene “soon.” 

“I listen to Karen. I listen to Cory. They listen to me. I think we are still making progress,” Scott said. 

Many of the same lawmakers also met with family members of Black men killed by police, including Philonise Floyd, the brother of George Floyd; Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner; and Alissa Findley, the sister of Botham Jean, as the families sought to pressure Congress into taking action on the House-passed George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.  

The meetings came a day after Biden, during his address to Congress on Wednesday night, also urged lawmakers to get a deal on police reform by the end of next month. 

“I know Republicans have their own ideas and are engaged in productive discussions with Democrats in the Senate. We need to work together to find a consensus but let us get it done next month by the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death,” Biden said during his speech.

Negotiators are eyeing May 25, the anniversary of Floyd’s death, as a deadline for getting an agreement. 

But they were also careful on Thursday not to stick themselves to a hard cut-off point.

“All of us feel like there’s a path forward. Now, of course, staff work. The path forward that gets us across the finish line on the anniversary. And that’s what the goal is,” Bass told reporters. 

Asked if they were on track for a May deal, she added: “I don’t know.” 

Scott also sidestepped being locked into a deadline, adding: “I didn’t set the May 25 deadline.”

Even as negotiators say they are making progress there’s still big hurdles to getting an agreement including what to do about qualified immunity.

Qualified immunity is a doctrine that protects state and local government officials, including law enforcement, from liability in civil suits unless they violate a person’s clearly established constitutional right. 

The House-passed bill overhauled the legal shield, a change considered a non-starter for many Republicans. 

Bass said there were “several” issues that still need to be resolved and that the immediate future would be focused on staff work with both the House and Senate out of town next week.

“We have to have our staff research any outstanding issues,” he said.

Durbin confirmed that they were discussing compromise language. One option that has been publicly floated has been changing qualified immunity so that the law enforcement agency, not the individual officer, is liable. But, Durbin noted, there were various options under discussion.

“It was a positive conversation. There’s work to be done. I think we can achieve our goal,” Durbin said.

While admitting there are still “major issues,” he said that “there’s trust in that room.”

Tags Brian Fitzpatrick Cory Booker Dick Durbin George Floyd Justice in Policing Act Joe Biden Josh Gottheimer Karen Bass Lindsey Graham police killins police reform Qualified immunity Tim Scott

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