Senators Float Reviving Police Reform Legislation

January 31, 2023

Some U.S. Senators who had hoped to pass police reform legislation after the 2020 death of George Floyd are hoping to revive talks in the wake of the police beating death of Tyre Nichols.

Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin (D-IL) said Monday that he had begun discussions with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the committee’s ranking Republican, about one of the major sticking points that ultimately led to the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which had passed the then-Democratic-led House in March 2021, to  fail in the Senate: qualified immunity for police officers.

Graham has been floating a compromise on qualified immunity, which shields police from liability in civil lawsuits unless accusers can prove that the allegations amount to a violation of constitutional rights and that those rights are “clearly established.”  On Twitter, Graham said that while he doesn’t believe individual officers should have have civil lawsuits filed against them, he does believe that police departments should face liability for the actions of their officers.

Durbin also said he had reached out to Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), while Graham plans to reach out to Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC). The two Senators, along with then-Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), now Mayor of Los Angeles, were drivers of police reform talks in the aftermath of Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin while accompanied by three other officers.

Scott, however, has to be careful he doesn’t sign off on a sweeping police reform bill that puts him at odds with the Republican base. The GOP’s only Black member of the Senate, he is reportedly considering a 2024 bid for President, and is viewed as a top Vice Presidential nominee if he doesn’t win the Presidential spot. But many Republicans have expressed doubt that any police reform deal can be passed by Congress that would not become a political liability for Scott, given the demands of Democrats.

“I think it’s probably less likely to happen now with divided government,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), adding, “We’ve been talking about it for two years and never been able to get to consensus on that. I’m sure it will be the subject of continued conversation, but I don’t know what the pathway is on that.”

Despite this, there has been some progress. In the 117th Congress’ lame duck session in December, it passed the bipartisan Law Enforcement De-Escalation Training Act, which aims to reduce police-caused fatalities by creating a stream of funding to train officers and mental health professionals to work with de-escalation tactics.

But in the wake of Nichols’ death—and murder charges brought against five Memphis police officers—discussions have moved beyond police training and funding toward reforming the entire culture of policing—including from President Biden.

“To deliver real change, we must have accountability when law enforcement officers violate their oaths, and we need to build lasting trust between law enforcement, the vast majority of whom wear the badge honorably, and the communities they are sworn to serve and protect,” Biden said on Monday.

Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis echoed the President, “You can have all of the ideal policies but if you have a culture that doesn’t have supervision, that doesn’t have adherence to the policies, then you’ve got problems.”

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