Last summer, after police protests over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) expressed pessimism about the chances of the Senate passing police reform law.
Scott, the only black Republican in the Senate and one of only three black Republicans in all of Congress, is the Senate’s leading Republican on police reform and was responsible for drafting the Judiciary Bill, the GOP Police Reform Act. The bill did not get 60 votes in 2020, the Senate’s necessary margin, and a majority of Democrats voted against because the issue was inadequately addressed. Meanwhile, the Democratic bill, the more expansive George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, was passed by the House of Representatives but not taken up by the then Republican Senate.
In February the House again passed the Democratic Act. Now that the Democrats are in control of the Senate, they could force a vote – but they still need 10 Republican votes to pass the bill, and the legislation, as it stands, received no Republican votes in the House. This time, Scott said, negotiations to merge Democrats’ law with his Judicial Bill have been productive, making him “hopeful” that a deal will be reached.
“This time my friends on the left are not looking for the problem,” Scott said on CBS “Face The Nation” Sunday. “You are looking for a solution. And the things I offered last year are more popular this year. That gives me reasons to be hopeful. “
Scott noted that the provisions that both bills have in common are The Basis for Compromise Legislation – Incentives for federal funding of departments that ban chokeholds, more grants for body cameras, federal criminalization of lynching, and the creation of a database on the use of force in the Justice Department to document and investigate how police officers do Use force.
But, as Vox’s Li Zhou explained, the Democratic bill goes much further. Democrats included a federal ban on chokeholds and no-knock warrants, a national database of police misconduct to minimize the rendition of officers with poor records, ban the distribution of some military weapons to local police stations, and give the DOJ authority expand indictment against departments.
Scott said on Face the Nation that some of these differences have already been addressed.
“Through negotiations and discussions, we are now closer to arrest warrants and chokeholds, as well as Section 1033, which deals with obtaining government equipment from the military for the local police force,” he said. “I think we’re making progress there too. We literally managed to bring these two bills very close together. “
The question of qualified immunity was a sticking point in the negotiations.
Qualified immunity refers to the legal protection of law enforcement officers that makes it difficult to sue them for misconduct and fails civil claims against them, as Vox’s Ian Millhiser has elaborated.
Last year Scott called the weakening of qualified immunity a “poison pill,” but this year he has a new compromise.
Instead of weakening the qualified immunity of individual officials, Scott has proposed allowing civil suits against departments.
Scott wants the Qualified Immunity Compromise to change the policing culture
“How are we changing the policing culture?” Scott said on Sunday. “I think we do this by holding the employer responsible for the actions of the worker. We do that with doctors. We do that with lawyers. We do that in almost all of our industries. If we do that in law enforcement, the employer will change the culture. In contrast to one officer changing or not changing, all officers will change because the departments take on more of that burden. “
Scott added that his proposal went down well with family members of victims of police brutality he met last week.
As Vox’s Li Zhou explains, the qualified immunity compromise could have political value.
Last year the Democrats blocked the passage of Scott’s bill – a sign of how limited they viewed it – and this year both policies need to be radically changed so that both pieces of legislation receive the bipartisan support they need to move forward.
Scott’s qualified immunity proposal could be a start in securing that support, though both Democrats and a number of Republicans would have to get on board to actually be tenable.
Senator Chris Coons (D-DE), a member of the Judiciary Committee, signaled a certain openness to this, noting that it “is worth considering, but it will depend on how exactly it is done”.
“That could be a sensible compromise idea,” Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) told Vox, adding that he has yet to study the idea. “It’s an interesting approach. It just goes to show that Tim Scott really wants to make progress on police reform. “
If the Democrats decide Scott’s compromise legislation is the largest bill they will get, the problem of getting 10 Republican votes remains. Some Republicans, like Senator John Kennedy (R-LA), told Vox’s Li Zhou that skilled immunity reform is not a novice.
And of course, more progressive Democrats might oppose compromise legislation because it is inadequate. Rep Cori Bush (D-MO) told CNN she would vote against Scott’s proposal for qualified immunity and said this was not a compromise provision.
But leading Democratic negotiators, including MP Karen Bass (D-CA) in the House of Representatives, said they were ready to negotiate as long as the qualified immunity provision maintains its purpose – accountability to officials.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), who is in charge of Democratic Police Reform in the Senate, told reporters that he was “really encouraged” by the state of the negotiations and that he felt they had momentum. And President Joe Biden pressured lawmakers to hold out in his Wednesday night speech, urging Senators to reach a compromise by the day of George Floyd’s death, May 25th.
On the Republican side, Scott believes enough senators will follow in the party he leads.
“Significant numbers in my party have already told me we will go where you are going on this matter as long as I can explain my position,” said Scott on Sunday. “And we will do that.”