Senators Still Working on Bipartisan Federal Police Reform Bill

By | July 26, 2021

U.S. Senator Tim Scott said he’s hopeful an agreement on police reform will be reached but vowed that any final accord wouldn’t “demonize” the police, including allowing individual officers to be sued in civil cases.

“That is dead-stop not going to happen, can’t happen,” Scott, a Republican from South Carolina, said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Scott is leading slow-going bipartisan negotiations on legislation to overhaul policing practices in the U.S., along with Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and Representative Karen Bass of California. Both sides say chances for legislation could collapse if there isn’t a deal before an August recess that begins in less than two weeks. The Senate has a backlogged fall agenda that includes a debt limit increase and a broad $3.5 trillion economic plan, and next year midterms elections will make deal-making more difficult.

Despite Scott’s optimism, a person familiar with the talks said a deal appears increasingly unlikely, although talks are continuing. The person said that Republicans repeatedly have shifted their demands, including on how to handle civil lawsuits filed against police officers by victims’ families.

Senator Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina, arrives for a Senate Republicans luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, June 24, 2020. Senate Democrats blocked Republicans’ proposal to overhaul U.S. policing practices, contending the measure is too meager to respond to the surge in protests against police brutality and racial inequities, and leaving Congress at an impasse for now.

Scott said on Sunday that negotiations are active, including over this weekend. He said issues like chokeholds or the militarization of police “are things we can negotiate on. No-knock warrants. We can make them better and more transparent. We’re making progress on those issues.”

But he said allowing individual officers to be sued is “bad policy.” He added, “I cannot and I will not support defunding the police. We need to frankly refund the police.”

The attempts to reach a compromise have been going on in earnest since April, when former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted on second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the 2020 killing of George Floyd. Legislation would be geared toward holding police officers more accountable for injuries and deaths they cause, to provide more training for local police departments, and to bar most choke holds and federal no-knock drug warrants.

Accountability Debate

The biggest sticking point in the talks has been over whether and how to create greater accountability for police officers who engage in excessive force by creating more exposure to civil lawsuits and criminal charges.

Negotiators have wrestled over whether to end the legal doctrine of “qualified immunity,” which shields police officers from being sued for damages for violating someone’s constitutional or legal rights.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has said he won’t back any bill that removes the legal protection for individual officers facing civil lawsuits. It would take 60 votes to advance the legislation in a Senate split 50-50 between the two parties.

Booker weeks ago proposed draft legislation that said police departments or local governments employing an officer would be liable in any civil lawsuits, not the officers themselves. It also proposed criminal penalties for officers who intentionally use excessive force if the officer “knows” it was excessive or “consciously disregards” a substantial risk that force was excessive. The proposal was negotiated with the Fraternal Order of Police and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

The draft legislation was not accepted, although Scott has been open to shifting liability in lawsuits to police departments. The person familiar with the talks said a complicating factor is that Republicans now want to have language that would strengthen the “qualified immunity” legal protection for officers by making it law.

Any failure in the talks would come more than a year after an effort to approve policing legislation collapsed in the Senate in 2020, months after Floyd’s killing sparked protests worldwide. Democrats blocked a bill Scott drafted that had only GOP support.

President Joe Biden has called for a deal this year on the legislation, and he and Vice President Kamala Harris met privately in May with Floyd’s relatives, including his young daughter.

–With assistance from Ian Fisher.

Top Photo: Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.)

Topics Law Enforcement

Was this article valuable?

Here are more articles you may enjoy.