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Qualified Immunity Remains Sticking Point in National Policing Reform Negotiations

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Kisha Smith

A bipartisan team of Democratic and Republican lawmakers—including Congresswoman Karen Bass and Senators Tim Scott, Lindsay Graham and Cory Booker— working since April 20 to come to an agreement on policing reform by the May 25 anniversary of George Floyd’s killing, have hit a familiar snag in negotiations: qualified immunity.

“Right now, especially on the House side, it’s our position that qualified immunity has to be eliminated,” Bass told reporters. “Qualified immunity will be a part of the final bill.”

“I’m on the exact opposite side”, said Tim Scott, who has been leading the charge for the GOP. 

Other bones of contention in the bill include federal standards on no-knock warrants; the collection of use-of-force data; lowering the criminal standard for finding law enforcement officers guilty of depriving a person of his or her civil rights;and the creation of a national database to track police officers with a history of police misconduct.

President Biden had called for action on the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act by May 25, but according to Booker, that is not likely. 

“We’re all trying to get it done as quickly as possible,” said Booker, “but there is no deadline for us”.

Booker has openly stated that “any meaningful bill must include accountability for egregious misconduct, more transparency and changing police practices to prevent police violence from occurring in the first place,” 

Qualified immunity is the legal doctrine that shields individual officers from being sued, instead allowing lawsuits only when an individual’s “clearly established” statutory or constitutional rights have been violated.

As it now stands, taxpayers foot the bills in wrongful death lawsuits like that brought by the family of George Floyd, which resulted in a $27 million settlement. More than $3 billion has been spent over the last decade to settle police misconduct lawsuits in 31 of 50 citied with the highest police-to-civilian ratios.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has made it clear that he and other Republicans won’t back a police reform bill without qualified immunity.

Scott, who is the GOP’s only black senator, has proposed making it easier to sue police departments, but not individual officers. However, that still leaves taxpayers on the hook.

 

House Majority Whip James Clyburn suggested on a recent Sunday morning show that he would be willing to compromise.

“The problem we have got now is that there are some bad apples in policing. We have seen it in our living rooms,” Clyburn said. “We know it’s still there. We have got to root out the bad apples, and let’s go forward with a good, solid program.

“I will never sacrifice good on the altar of perfect.”

It is not, however, a sentiment shared by Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, who stated, “For too long, victims of police brutality and their families have been denied legal recourse, furthering their pain and impeding their healing. Ending qualified immunity is critical to these efforts and weakening or removing the qualified immunity provisions in the bill should not be on the table.”

Said Bass, “The bottom line is we want to see these shootings stop. How is that going to happen if officers are not held accountable?”


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