- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Civil rights activists used the anniversary of George Floyd’s death on Tuesday to raise the heat on Congress to change policing in the nation and hold police officers more accountable.

The murder conviction last month of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in Floyd’s death was only a start in the quest for justice, said Sakira Cook, senior director of the justice reform program at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Ultimately, whether Floyd’s family finds justice will be measured by how much a divided Congress can come together to change policing in America and assure the nation never again has to witness horrific scenes like Floyd gasping his final breaths as Chauvin knelt on his neck.

“Floyd’s legacy is still to be determined. Congress has yet to pass legislation, and across the country. Black people are still experiencing heinous acts of violence at the hands of police. We can and we must achieve the meaningful accountability and transformative change our justice system needs,” she said in a statement to The Washington Times.

Congress failed to meet President Biden’s challenge to pass a major overhaul of policing policy by the anniversary of Floyd’s death.

Democrats and Republicans are divided over how far to go with an overhaul of policing policies, as they try to balance increased restrictions on police conduct against the danger of being a cop.

A big sticking point is a demand from Democrats to eliminate legal liability protections for police known as qualified immunity, which shields officers from most lawsuits for their actions in the line of duty.

As the tragic anniversary arrived Tuesday, the pressure on lawmakers to reach a deal will be amplified when Floyd’s family meets with Mr. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris at the White House.  

The family members are also scheduled to meet with Sen. Cory Booker of New Jerse, and Rep. Karen Bass of California, the lead Democrats in negotiations with Republicans over the bill.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, will also meet with the family.

Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, and the top Republican in the talks, does not have a meeting scheduled with them, said a spokeswoman for the senator. Mr. Scott is the only Black Republican member of the Senate.

Ms. Bass, Mr. Booker and Mr. Scott said in a joint statement that they are making progress in the talks: “While we are still working through our differences on key issues, we continue to make progress toward a compromise and remain optimistic.”

Lisa Cylar Barrett, director of policy at the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc., on C-Span’s Washington Journal.

“You can’t look at that video without being outraged by the complete indifference to the life of another individual,” Ms. Barrett said.  

“What would be a meaningful way for us to acknowledge the pain and suffering felt by [Mr. Floyd’s] family would be to pass legislation to address the tremendous issues that we’re seeing in policing in this country,” she said.

Though, the video of Floyd’s death shocked the nation and sparked months of racial justice protests across the country. But major changes to policing have been slow to take hold.

Without congressional action, Floyd’s death has thus far mostly led to changes by states and local governments. Twelve states last year have made changes in the amount of force police can use, according to a study by Third Way, a centrist Washington think tank.

Ten have banned the use of chokeholds. But others have gone further and raised the standard for when law enforcement officers are allowed to use physical force.

Rather than protecting officers if the force they use is considered reasonable, a new Maryland state law allows officers to use force that is “necessary and proportional” and only when there is “an imminent threat of physical injury” to a person or to “effectuate a legitimate law enforcement objective.” Officers could be sent to prison for up to ten years if their violation of the tougher standards leads to serious injury or death under the new law.

Nine states have increased police training, particularly in learning how to de-escalate situations to avoid the use of force. Five states have mandated that police wear body cameras. Five also have created requirements on police to intervene if they see another officer committing misconduct. Four states have also increased the circumstances in which officers can lose their accreditation to be law enforcement officers.

Several cities, including Portland, Oregon; Austin, Texas; and Minneapolis, have also responded to the calls for change ignited by Mr. Floyd’s death by cutting or steering funding from law enforcement to other purposes like human services.  

A Washington Times review of public data found that in nine of the cities that made the most dramatic cuts to police department budgets, homicides rose by nearly 68%. Portland’s homicide rate soared a staggering 1,900% in 2021, with 20 killings, compared with one during the first three months of 2020. The city carved $16 million, or 7%, out of its police budget last year.

Still, the anniversary renewed calls for defunding the police.

“We renew our calls for a realignment of budgetary priorities across the nation,” said Rachel Fleischer, executive director for Young Invincibles, an advocacy group for Millenials. “We can shift valuable tax dollars away from harmful policing towards human-centered services that actually work to keep communities safer. Investing in education, health care, jobs, and housing is violence prevention,” she said.

“It is time to divert funds from exorbitant police budgets and put money into people. It is time to take decisive action to build healthy and thriving communities without the fear of state-sanctioned violence at the hands of police forces,” she said.

The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act passed by House Democrats in March would make many significant changes across the nation. It would among other things bar racial profiling by police, ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants by federal law enforcement officers and strip federal dollars from local police agencies that do not do the same. It would also create a national database of police officers who are fired or leave a department after being accused of misconduct so they cannot simply go to a different law enforcement agency.

Most controversially, it would eliminate a legal doctrine called “qualified immunity” that shields police officers from being sued for violating the civil rights of others.

“Senators Booker and Scott, as well as Representative Bass and others, have been working diligently behind the scenes to fashion such a bill, on a bipartisan basis. That important work must continue as we strive to ensure to George Floyd’s tragic death will not be in vain,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer said on the Senate floor.

However, Republicans and police unions are adamantly opposed to exposing police officers to lawsuits. Sen. Tim Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate and the party’s lead in negotiations over the policing bill, has proposed an alternative — making it easier for victims and their families to sue police departments.

That doesn’t go far enough for civil rights groups and Democrats on the left. A group of eight progressive House Democrats wrote congressional leaders last week, demanding that police officers lose qualified immunity.

Ms. Barrett, of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, pushed for the tougher House version.

“The bill that passed the House is the one that should pass the Senate,” she said.

“This is what will make a difference. This is what will provide the type of accountability and remove the barriers that allow police to act with impunity.”

• Kery Murakami can be reached at kmurakami@washingtontimes.com.

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