Police reform stalls in Washington a year after George Floyd’s death
Almost a year after the killing of George Floyd, the officer accused of his murder is on trial, but nationwide police reform remains at an impasse.
Floyd’s death while in police custody galvanized calls for racial justice that became a major focus of President Biden’s campaign. According to the White House, Mr. Biden and Vice President Harris have been monitoring former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s trial, while a promise that the president made during his campaign to address police reform remains unfulfilled.
At his first in-person gathering during the COVID-19 pandemic on June 1, 2020, Mr. Biden promised if elected he would stand up a police oversight board within his first 100 days in office.
But with weeks to go before Mr. Biden reaches the 100-day mark, he hasn’t yet announced a board, and outside criminal justice and civil rights groups told CBS News they do not expect one.
“I don’t have an update on the commission,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Wednesday when asked about the status of the campaign promise.
A White House official told CBS News the administration is “working in a thoughtful manner” on the “important priority” of passing the police reform proposal in the House and are advocating with some Republicans but did not directly comment on the status of the board.
Susan Rice, head of the Domestic Policy Council, and senior advisor Cedric Richmond are the point people on police reform for the White House, according to three people familiar with the process, but it’s Congress that is hammering out the details of potential federal legislation.
The House police reform proposal Mr. Biden supports is the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, reintroduced in the House in February by Representative Karen Bass of California after it failed to pass last summer.
Bass and Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, both Democrats, have been talking about a possible compromise on police reform with Republican Senator Tim Scott from South Carolina, who introduced his own proposal last year, according to two congressional aides.
Their discussions are continuing as Chauvin’s trial enters its third week.
Bass told CBS News that this latest round of conversations about police reform is different because when it was debated last summer, it was “too close to the election, which took up all the oxygen in the room.” But now, after meeting with Scott and the House Problem Solvers caucus over the past few weeks, she’s predicting movement on police reform soon — “in the next few weeks” — though she declined to divulge any details.
“We absolutely feel the urgency because as we are having our discussions the backdrop is the trial,” Bass added.
The House bill would ban different types of police neck holds, including choke holds to impede breathing and carotid holds to temporarily cut off blood flow to the brain, and would also outlaw the no-knock warrants in drug-related cases that currently allow police with warrants to enter private property without announcing themselves. This bill would also change the police misconduct standard from “willfulness” to “recklessness,” make lynching a federal crime, and would also end “qualified immunity,” which largely prevents civilians from suing public servants like police officers.
The proposal also mandates use of police dashboard and body cameras, streamlines federal prosecution of excessive force cases and organizes registries and data on problematic officers and use of force instances.
Last year, Scott introduced alternative police reform legislation, the JUSTICE Act, that would also have increased the use of police body cameras and better data, as well as making lynching a federal crime. Scott’s proposal called for studies into no-knock warrants and used federal funding and retraining to root out some issues like the police chokeholds, instead of outright banning the maneuvers.
Though the two proposals shared many similarities, the legislative process deteriorated into recrimination, with the parties accusing each other of trying to score political wins and not reforms.
Overall, the country wants police reforms: after Floyd’s death, 94% of Americans said they supported at least some changes to policing and 58% said “major changes” were necessary, according to a Gallup poll.
This broad support even includes some conservative and libertarian groups like Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks, who sent a letter with criminal justice reform groups to congressional leadership in March to advocate for banning police chokeholds “except when deadly force is otherwise justified,” reforming qualified immunity, and instituting more accountability and tracking of misconduct by law enforcement officers.
A few police reforms are even supported by law enforcement, as the Fraternal Order of Police on Thursday stated in their 2021 policy paper they support increased use of officer body cameras and some additional data collection on officer misconduct and no-knock warrants. The union, however, also underscored its belief that qualified immunity for officers is “critical.”
The Biden White House has tackled some other criminal justice issues like stopping contracts with private prisons and targeted executive actions on gun control, but some criminal justice reform advocates fear another political standoff this year over police reform and are lobbying for a fresh start with a new bipartisan bill.
“Policing will be at a standstill again if neither side is willing to give,” Inimai Chettiar, federal director of the Justice Action Network told CBS News, “We don’t want to end up with no action this year and potentially more Black men dying because people are not coming to the table to work on a compromise bill.”
This impatience is shared by the Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform.
“We are a little concerned that this is a squandered opportunity because criminal justice is such on the minds of people right now, we have the trial that is captivating a lot of folks,” Randy Shrewsberry, the institute’s executive director told CBS News, “Especially bringing in Vice President Harris, who comes from a law enforcement background, we were really hoping that this would be a centerpiece to a great deal of their agenda and it just doesn’t seem to be the case yet.”
The Institute would like to see specific elements of police reform implemented by the Justice Department, to bypass what may still be a long road ahead for the legislative process. By incentivizing existing federal funding, Shrewsberry said the Justice Department could effectively establish federal use-of-force guidance for police officers, which currently does not exist, and also ban the police neck holds. The Justice Department can also rework police officer training and more actively investigate police departments, called consent decrees, a practice that was almost entirely eliminated under the Trump administration.
One hurdle for police reform: two nominations at the Department of Justice, Vanita Gupta as Associate Attorney General and Kristen Clarke to head the Department’s Civil Rights Division, have yet to be confirmed by the Senate. Police reform advocates say part of Mr. Biden’s agenda would need to come from that agency to intervene in local policing practices.
A limited effort by the Justice Department on a new law enforcement curriculum was announced last week in response to anti-Asian violence. It’s geared toward retooling training, investigating and reporting hate crimes through its Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS)—a community-based policing program Mr. Biden promised to strengthen, which countered the calls from fellow Democrats to “defund the police.”
Mr. Biden in his campaign promised another $300 billion dollars to “reinvigorate” the COPS program, stipulating that when hiring more police officers they “must mirror the racial diversity of the community they serve.”
Asked about progress on this pledge, a White House official replied, “Yes, this continues to be his position.”
Weijia Jiang contributed reporting to this story.