A protester kneels in front of a row of police.

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Published — March 12, 2021

Police reform in response to George Floyd case faces roadblocks

A protester kneels in front of a row of police during a demonstration against the death of George Floyd at a park near the White House on June 1, 2020, in Washington, DC. (Oliver Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

A renewed push for sweeping policing reform by Democrats this year faces tough odds in the Senate and many states.

Introduction

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a sweeping policing reform measure last week in honor of George Floyd, the 46-year-old Black man whose death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in May sparked monthslong nationwide protests.

The 220-to-212 vote, mostly along party lines, came six days before jury selection for the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, the officer who was filmed kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, began under tightened security.

Opinion polls have shown broad public support for key provisions in the House measure, which bans chokeholds and profiling, limits no-knock warrants, mandates data collection, and redirects funding to community-based programs.

But the fate of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is uncertain in the evenly divided Senate.

A key sticking point is “qualified immunity,” the legal doctrine that shields officers from lawsuits. Civil-rights advocates say ending qualified immunity — as the House measure calls for — is a must for systemic change, but police unions fiercely oppose the idea.

In statehouses across the country, a similar legislative drama has been playing out. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a nonpartisan association of state lawmakers, policing-related bills have been introduced in all 50 states and the District of Columbia since Floyd’s killing. But just a handful of them called for ending qualified immunity in state courts. So far, only Colorado has done so.

In many ways, the lack of legislative breakthroughs at the federal and state levels underscores the dilemma for civil-rights advocates: The public outcry for sweeping policing reform doesn’t necessarily translate to concrete policy changes.

But proponents of the House measure say they still see a fighting chance in the Senate, where Democrats would have to sway at least 10 Republican members to avoid the filibuster.

Colorado state Rep. Leslie Herod, a Democrat whose bill ended qualified immunity in state courts, said her experience shows that getting bipartisan support is far from impossible.

In the debate over her bill last year, Herod said opponents predicted doomsday scenarios about what would happen following its passage: Law enforcement officers would stop policing or leave their jobs in droves. Neither scenario came to pass, she said.

“It’s important to have very intentional conversations and not being hyperbolic about the impact of the bill,” Herod said.

In the end, the bill’s supporters were able to win over a number of GOP lawmakers by appealing to their sense of individual liberty. Seven even signed on as co-sponsors.

“We were able to make the case that this is government overreach — that’s what we have when they are able to take someone’s freedom or liberty without accountability,” Herod said.

Rui Kaneya is a senior reporter at the Center for Public Integrity. He can be reached at rkaneya@publicintegrity.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ruikaneya.

Read more in Inside Public Integrity

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