Democrats, About to Miss a Police Reform Deadline, Hold Out Hope

On Tuesday, Congress will arrive at — and blow right past — President Biden’s deadline for delivering a major police reform bill to his desk.

But advocates and lawmakers in both parties are optimistic about the possibility of reaching a compromise, hoping that police reform could offer a rare window for bipartisanship as the legislative process grinds to a halt on a range of other issues.

The president will meet at the White House on Tuesday with members of George Floyd’s family in recognition of the anniversary of his murder by the police, a date by which Mr. Biden had said Congress should aim to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a sweeping police reform bill.

“My fellow Americans, we have to come together to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the people they serve, to root out systemic racism in our criminal justice system, and to enact police reform in George Floyd’s name that passed the House already,” Mr. Biden said last month in his first address to a joint session of Congress, saying it should be passed “by the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death.”

That isn’t going to happen. But discussions are moving ahead, led by Representative Karen Bass, Democrat of California; Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey; and Senator Tim Scott, Republican of South Carolina.

Speaking with ABC News over the weekend, Ms. Bass expressed frustration that Congress would not be able to meet Mr. Biden’s deadline, but she said that the prospects for police reform depended on the parties’ ability to negotiate. “Bipartisanship is everything if we want to get the bill on President Biden’s desk,” she said. “The only way to do that is to bring a bipartisan bill in the Senate, and I’m very hopeful that we will be able to accomplish that.”

With the Senate divided 50-50, the bill would need at least 60 votes to escape the threat of a filibuster. That would mean garnering significant Republican buy-in, unless Democrats roll back the filibuster, which some centrist Democrats continue to resist doing.

The need for compromise, in turn, could threaten some of policing reformers’ top priorities — particularly the bill provisions that make it easier to hold officers legally accountable for misconduct.

The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act passed the House in March on a largely party-line vote, and aims to reform a broad range of police practices and policies. It includes language that would end the use of police chokeholds and so-called carotid holds, and would ban no-knock warrants like the one that led to Breonna Taylor’s death at the hands of the police in Louisville, Ky.

It seeks to increase accountability for police misconduct by creating a nationwide misconduct registry to help hold problematic officers accountable. It contains language to prohibit racial and religious profiling, and would take steps to redirect funding toward community-based policing, a key demand of activists.

One of the most conspicuous sticking points in the legislation is the debate around ending qualified immunity, a set of legal protections that shield officers from civil prosecution for alleged brutality and other misconduct. As passed by the House, the George Floyd bill would roll back qualified immunity by disallowing officers to escape a lawsuit by using the argument that they were “acting in good faith.”

A group of progressive lawmakers in the House led by Representatives Ayanna Pressley and Cori Bush sent a letter on Friday urging their colleagues in the Senate to support an end to qualified immunity. They didn’t directly threaten not to support a bill that did not include an end to qualified immunity, but the 10 lawmakers who signed the letter would be enough to tank a vote in the closely divided House, if it failed to receive Republican support.

“We are concerned by recent discussions that the provision ending qualified immunity for local, state and federal law enforcement may be removed in order to strike a bipartisan deal in the Senate,” they wrote, saying the protections allow law enforcement officers to do harm with “virtual impunity.”

Puneet Cheema, a manager of the Justice in Public Safety Project for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, has been working with Democratic lawmakers to shape the legislation, and she called ending qualified immunity “the heart of the accountability provisions” in the bill.

Qualified immunity was enshrined by the Supreme Court as a legal doctrine in the waning years of the civil rights movement, as a way to protect law enforcement officers from needless lawsuits.

Mr. Scott, the Senate’s lone Black Republican and an advocate of moderate police reform, has said that he and other G.O.P. legislators will not support a bill that ends qualified immunity outright, but he is working with Ms. Bass, an architect of the George Floyd bill, to find a compromise. Mr. Scott has suggested that the legal burden could be shifted from individual officers to police departments, potentially passing on financial liability to municipal governments while satisfying powerful police unions.

Mr. Scott’s willingness to move on the issue, and his indication that other Republicans could come along with him, signal how the politics on the issue have shifted since Democrats took control in Washington at the start of the year.

Over the summer, Senator Mike Braun, a Republican from Indiana, introduced a bill to curb qualified immunity, but he pulled back after conservative commentators including Tucker Carlson blasted it. President Donald Trump said that he would veto any bill that attacked the doctrine.

Edward Erikson, the director of the Campaign to End Qualified Immunity, a group that has worked with Ms. Bush’s office on this bill, said in an interview that the argument that special legal protections were needed for officers pointed to a more fundamental flaw in policing. “When they say we can’t do our job without qualified immunity, they’re saying policing in America as it exists today is incompatible with civil rights,” he said.

Polls suggest that there’s broad support for police reform, though certain provisions poll more strongly than others.

Sean McElwee, a founder of the Democratic-aligned polling and strategy firm Data for Progress, said that ending qualified immunity faced significant political hurdles. “New York State hasn’t ended qualified immunity,” he said. “How are you going to make that a red line for negotiation” on a federal bill — “this thing that even blue states haven’t done?”

Though qualified immunity may not be a term that most voters are deeply familiar with, a wide majority of the country believes that officers who have committed misconduct should be held accountable in court. An Associated Press/NORC poll conducted last year in the wake of Mr. Floyd’s death found that 85 percent of the country favored prosecuting officers who used excessive force, including 63 percent who strongly favored it.

In a CNN poll last month, 53 percent of respondents said that policing in America needed either major changes or a total overhaul. That view was shared by four in five Democrats, but just 23 percent of Republicans agreed.

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