The House on Thursday passed Democrats’ police reform bill, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020, by a 236-181 vote. Three Republicans joined Democrats to vote in favor of the bill, which now heads to the Senate, where it isn’t expected to get much traction.
Thursday’s vote underscores an ongoing stalemate: Over the past few weeks, congressional Democrats and Republicans have been at an impasse over the next steps on police reform, with each party respectively introducing its own bill. Senate Democrats rejected Republicans’ proposal, the Justice Act, earlier this week, on the grounds that it wasn’t expansive enough in its policies. And Republicans are now poised to stall Democrats’ offering in the upper chamber, meaning progress on these reforms is effectively at a standstill.
The two parties’ bills were introduced as protesters across the country condemn the police killing of 46-year-old George Floyd and demand measures that address systemic racism and violence by law enforcement. Their proposals overlap some: Both would ramp up the use of body cameras, make lynching a federal crime, and incentivize state and local police departments to ban the use of chokeholds. But the Democrats’ bill, led by Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, is more expansive than Republicans’. It would curb “qualified immunity,” a legal provision that shields police from accountability for misconduct, and impose a ban on both chokeholds and no-knock warrants in drug cases at the federal level. Meanwhile, Republicans’ legislation, led by Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), would not address qualified immunity and does not include a federal chokehold ban.
Democrats have argued that Republicans’ bill centers too heavily on data collection and not enough on legal changes that would directly address police misconduct and use of force. Republicans, however, have said that “qualified immunity” is an area they aren’t particularly interested in tackling. Neither bill, meanwhile, goes as far as what protesters have called for: Both shy away from the idea of “defunding the police” and shifting money from law enforcement budgets to social services.
“When we pass this bill, the Senate will have a choice,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday at a press event about the legislation.
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already signaled that he’s not likely to take up the legislation, and President Donald Trump recently indicated he’d veto the bill if it passed both chambers. “They want to take away a lot of the strength from our police and from law enforcement generally, and we can’t live with it. We can’t live with it,” Trump said Wednesday.
The main question now is whether Democrats and Republicans will ultimately be able to navigate the key differences in their proposals to arrive at a compromise. While there’s plenty of public pressure and interest in implementing reforms, lawmakers’ disagreements could well prevent a measure from coming to fruition in the near term.
What’s in Democrats’ police reform bill
The Justice in Policing Act is a wide-ranging bill that attempts to get at the problem of police brutality toward Black Americans through a number of different means. It has some overlap with Republicans’ proposals — including an emphasis on ramping up the use of body cameras — but goes much farther in provisions concerning legal accountability for police misconduct.
For example, one tenet of the bill would change the law to make it easier to prosecute police officers who harm or kill someone, as well as those who are charged with other forms of misconduct. Other measures include mandatory racial bias training at the federal level and the establishment of a national registry to track police misconduct, plus a requirement for the US attorney general to create new standards for law enforcement accreditation.
Here are some of the bill’s key parts:
Revising federal law on criminal police misconduct and qualified immunity reform: The new bill would change one very significant word in federal law when it comes to prosecuting police: “willful.” That word means prosecutors charging police have to demonstrate there was willful intent on the part of the police officer to kill or harm someone — which can be extremely difficult to prove and successfully prosecute. The bill would change that word to the phrase “knowingly or with reckless disregard.” It would also define a “death resulting” as any act that was a “substantial factor contributing to the death” of an individual.
In addition, the bill changes something called qualified immunity, which courts have interpreted to give police officers and other public officials broad immunity from being sued in civil court if they have violated the constitutional rights of an individual. The bill would make it easier for plaintiffs to recover damages against police officers if the officer is sued and found guilty.
“Qualified immunity is something that has evolved over time. It’s not written into any law,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) previously told NPR’s Weekend Edition. “But our highest courts in the land have decided that police officers are immune from civil cases unless there’s been specifically in the past a case of generally the exact circumstances that has led towards a successful action. It creates this bar towards civil action against a police officer for violating your civil rights.”
Ban no-knock warrants in drug cases at the federal level: The use of a no-knock search warrant in Louisville on March 13 had fatal consequences. Police shot and killed 26-year-old Breonna Taylor after using a battering ram to break down her door and exchanging fire with Taylor’s boyfriend. The police were executing a search warrant for a drug case, pursuing two other men, but broke down Taylor’s door because they believed the men were receiving packages at her apartment. The Democratic bill would ban these kinds of no-knock warrants in federal drug cases, but also condition federal funding for state and local law enforcement agencies on prohibiting their use as well. Republicans’ bill would commission a study of the use of no-knock warrants, but stop short of a ban.
Ban chokeholds at the federal level: In 2014, Eric Garner was killed by New York police, who used a chokehold to restrain him during an arrest. And in May, Floyd died after a police officer placed his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes.
The legislation would put a federal ban in place on the use of police chokeholds, which is defined by the bill as an act putting pressure on an individual’s throat or windpipe that impedes their ability to breathe. Such bans have already been supported by localities across the country including, most recently, Minneapolis.
A federal chokehold ban would further condemn the use of this tactic by police and give the Justice Department more power to levy charges against law enforcement officers who use this maneuver. Activists have raised questions about the efficacy of such bans: Despite the New York Police Department banning chokeholds in 1993, police using the method killed Eric Garner in 2014. Both the Democrat and Republican bills condition federal funding on state and local departments adopting such bans.
Establish a national registry of misconduct by law enforcement officers: There’s currently very little data available about police misconduct, making it difficult to pin down past offenders and ensure that they don’t receive jobs in new places. According to a USA Today report, punishment for misconduct also varies at the state level, with some requiring police to decertify while others are far less punitive. Creating a national registry about misconduct would enable lawmakers to better understand its frequency and craft targeted responses to combat it.
The Republican bill would not establish a national registry of police misconduct but does require local and state agencies to maintain disciplinary records for law enforcement officers; it also conditions funding on these practices.
Require states to report use of force to the Justice Department: Similarly, little is currently known about the frequency with which police officers currently use force, something the bill is striving to change. By mandating state documentation of use of force, law enforcement agencies can begin to determine how often police engage in such actions. The Republican measure, too, calls for state and local agencies to report use of force to the federal government on an annual basis.
Mandate racial bias training at the federal level: A reform that’s been implemented in some police stations across the country, racial bias training is aimed at getting law enforcement officers to recognize their own explicit and implicit biases — and how these attitudes affect the way they respond in different situations. Researchers have found implicit racial biases could be tied to officers being quicker to shoot black subjects versus white subjects. The training involves providing officers with evidence of these biases playing out so they are forced to recognize their existence.
In addition to requiring it at the federal level, the bill would condition funding for state and local police based on their commitment to implementing racial bias training programs. Among critics of racial bias training, questions remain about how effective it is in deterring police abuses and disparate use of force.
Require that deadly force be used only as last resort: The bill would change the use-of-force standard for federal officers from “reasonableness” to only when it is necessary to either prevent death or “serious bodily injury.” It would require federal officers to use deescalation techniques and only resort to force as a last resort, and would condition federal funds to state and local agencies on their adoption of the same standard.
Make lynching a federal crime: The killings of Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, a black jogger who was shot by two white men in Georgia while he was out on a run, have been described as modern-day lynchings. Despite more than 200 attempts to consider bills addressing such acts, there remains no law on the books classifying lynchings as a federal crime.
While the House and Senate have respectively passed their own legislation that would do so, the two have yet to approve one bill and get it signed into law. Both the Democratic and Republican bills would guarantee that lynching — described by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer as “the premeditated, extrajudicial killing by a mob or group of people to instill fear” — would be treated as a federal crime. The Justice in Policing Act would also classify conspiring to commit civil rights offenses, such as a hate crime, as a lynching.
Require police to use more body and dashboard cameras: The bill would require federal police officers to wear body cameras and put dashboard cameras on all federal police vehicles. It requires state and local departments to use existing federal funds to increase body camera use, which has been on the rise since the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. However, research has shown that more cameras aren’t the whole story; police don’t always turn them on or review the footage while writing an incident report, and footage is not always made public.
The Republican bill also encourages the use of body cameras and establishes a grant program for police to obtain such technology.
Limit the transfer of military equipment to local police departments: Currently, the military is able to distribute excess equipment including armored vehicles and ammunition to local law enforcement agencies under the 1033 program. The bill would prohibit the distribution of some “controlled” military equipment by the Department of Defense, such as firearms, grenades, vehicles, and weaponized drones. There are scenarios when departments could waive this rule, however, such as when police need a vehicle for a natural disaster response.
The next steps for police reform are uncertain
Given the differences in the Democratic and Republican proposals, the next steps for police reform remain uncertain. In a letter to McConnell earlier this week, Democrats called for Republicans to engage in negotiations before holding another floor vote.
“This bill is not salvageable and we need bipartisan talks to get to a constructive starting point,” wrote Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Booker. McConnell, too, has said a Senate bill has the potential to come up for another vote later down the line.
Whether such talks will lead to tangible progress, however, is an open question. Because both Democrats and Republicans view “qualified immunity” as a key sticking point, it’s possible any compromise could stall over this — and other — provisions.
A similar dynamic has played out in the past over other policy areas: Prior efforts at gun reform, which had significant public support, have been stymied by partisan differences. After the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018, Democrats and Republicans proposed multiple gun reform bills regarding background checks and “red flag” laws, many of which foundered.
Additionally, as Fox News’s Chad Pergram notes, Democrats may be interested in waiting for the outcome of this fall’s elections: If the party is able to retake a Senate majority, it could have added leverage to advance a more comprehensive set of police reforms at that time.
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