(Content note: This article contains descriptions of police violence)
One year after the brutal murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, activists are continuing to push for police reform intended to limit the chances of history repeating itself. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which was introduced by Rep. Karen Bass in June 2020, would prohibit law enforcement at all levels from racial, religious, and discriminatory profiling. The bill looks to remedy longstanding problems with current police practices, create a national registry for police misconduct, lower criminal intent standards from willful to reckless, and aim to eliminate qualified immunity. It also restricts unnecessary use of force, limits no-knock warrants, and establishes new reporting requirements around the use of force, officer misconduct, and routine police practices.
President Joe Biden had set a Tuesday deadline—the one-year anniversary of the day Floyd was killed—for Congress to pass the bill. The House of Representatives voted in favor of the bill on March 4, but it has yet to be passed by the Senate. Criminal justice organizations across the country have championed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, including professional athletes and sports organizations like the National Basketball Players Association and Major League Soccer.
“While President Biden requested that the Senate vote on this bill for signage by today, the Senate’s vote has yet to take place. We urge Senators to do so immediately,” said David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, in a statement to Prism. “We honor George Floyd today and every one of our siblings killed because of racism and white supremacy in America. We will keep saying the names George Floyd, Nina Pop, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and too many others, in remembrance as we continue working for accountability and justice.”
Christopher Brown, who runs the Black-led law firm The Brown Firm, believes the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is just the first step to addressing police misconduct. Brown recently won a $3.5 million settlement for the family of Wayne Jones, a Black man with schizophrenia who was shot 22 times by West Virginia police in 2013. He pointed out how while the bill focuses on reforming police practices, the roots of police violence go deeper than routines and policies.
“This isn’t a training issue. It’s a fundamental lack of empathy issue,” Brown said. “But still, it’s a good start. Saying no chokeholds, saying officers have to step in if they see other officers engage in excessive force, and reporting requirements—all of those things are a step in the right direction to ensure that citizens are safe from the police who are meant to protect them.”
Limiting qualified immunity, which protects police from most civil lawsuits, is a key aspect of the bill that is currently stalling the vote in the Senate. Though limiting qualified immunity had briefly become a bipartisan issue immediately following Floyd’s death, Senate Republicans have since changed their view.
“Qualified immunity applies to all government persons and state actors, and so one of the concerns is that we can’t put government officials in positions of having to pay judgments,” Brown siad. “They say if we do that, nobody will take the jobs, but that never happens. The state insurance policies cover these claims. So that’s kind of a false flag, a red herring to talk about that.”
Republicans say weakening qualified immunity would expose police officers to excessive lawsuits, but Brown says that argument doesn’t work.
“We have this case law that deals with officers with kid gloves like they aren’t trained professionals,” Brown said. “We deal with these professionals like they’re 12-year-old kids who wouldn’t know that they’re violating someone’s constitutional rights.”
Though many criminal justice activists applaud certain aspects of the bill, others reject the idea of police reform entirely.
“A lot of the changes proposed in this legislation reflect the theory of change that policing can be made better. We reject that idea,” said Cat Brooks, executive director of the Anti Police-Terror Project. “While we will take the incremental steps offered in the Act, such as the end of qualified immunity for law enforcement officers who kill people, our work towards fundamentally reimagining public safety on the road to abolition of policing continues with or without this policy passing.”
The bill isn’t expected to pass the Senate by Biden’s Tuesday deadline, but efforts are still underway to reach a bipartisan agreement sometime in the near future.
“This anniversary serves as a painful reminder of why we must make meaningful change,” said Rep. Karen Bass and Sens. Cory Booker and Tim Scott, the lead negotiators of the bill, in a statement issued on Monday. “While we are still working through our differences on key issues, we continue to make progress toward a compromise and remain optimistic about the prospects of achieving that goal.”