Thirty years after the Los Angeles police beating of Rodney King and nine months after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, congressional Democrats hope to make sweeping changes to American law enforcement with a major reform bill passed by the House on Wednesday.
The lengthy bill aims to end qualified immunity, which gives government officials broad protections from lawsuits, such as police brutality cases. It would also lower the legal standard required to convict an officer for misconduct, establish a national database to track police misconduct and provide grants to help states conduct investigations into alleged constitutional abuses by law enforcement.
Though advocates say the bill is long overdue after years of racial bias in policing and growing pressure to address systemic racism, it faces a tough challenge ahead from moderate Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, who argue the legislation will drain resources from law enforcement and jeopardize officer safety.
“I think this is a big deal in a way that actually makes me skeptical that anything close to it will pass, because it’s quite ambitious,” said John Rappaport, a professor of law at the University of Chicago.
Several policing and criminal justice experts also expressed uncertainty about whether the bill, if passed, could effect significant change amid long-standing challenges with federal oversight of state and local law enforcement.
With this legislation, Congress’ power over non-federal agencies is through funding — allocating money for proper training and research. It also requires state and local police to make changes — like banning certain no-knock warrants and chokeholds — in order to receive federal funding.
But fundamentally changing policing still requires interest from a range of other actors, including governors, police departments, prosecutors and juries, Rappaport said.
Fate of the bill in the Senate remains unclear
The Democrats’ bill, known as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, passed in the House 220-212, with a vote from just one Republican. The same bill was introduced and passed in the House last summer, but died in the then-Republican-controlled Senate. This time Democrats have majority power in the Senate with 50 members plus a tie breaking vote from Vice President Kamala Harris, but Senate rules require votes from 60 of the 100 members in order to advance legislation.
Debate on the House floor ahead of its vote this week highlighted some of the primary concerns among Republican lawmakers.
“The Democrats and radical left are going to defund, dismantle departments, take away officers’ liability protection for doing their job, and then they are going to take away their physical protection from harm. We will be lucky to have a police force in America in 10 years,” Rep. Greg Steube, R-Fla., said Wednesday.
Republican opposition aside, it’s also unclear whether all Democrats are on board. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., a political wildcard in the split chamber, has not yet spoken publicly on the bill. Last year he voted to advance the Republican police reform alternative, which sought to limit chokeholds and provide funds for use of body-worn cameras. But unlike the bill now under consideration, last year’s Republican bill did not go as far as seeking to end qualified immunity, expand officers’ criminal liability or limit police use of military equipment.
Despite bipartisan agreement on a need for change in policing, there’s a notable gap between Republicans’ and Democrats’ ideas on reform remedies, said Daniel Harawa, an assistant professor of practice and director of the appellate clinic at Washington University in St. Louis.
What’s in the bill, and the challenges ahead
Even as many police reform advocates acknowledge the significance of the Justice in Policing Act, questions remain about its potency and the challenges of implementation at the state and local level.
“It just requires so much buy-in in an institution that is kind of culturally set already,” Harawa said. “It will be hard for any kind of legislation to provide the fix that would really reach the core of the police function and the way police have been operating for so long.”
Part of the challenge is that with more than 18,000 police agencies in the country, of which more than 12,000 are local, trying to implement uniform approaches to policing is no easy task. The details of how federal legislation might work on the ground is another consideration for law enforcement experts. Policing is not one-size-fits all, and what works for some communities may not work for others, law enforcement experts say.
“It’s important legislation … but there are still some things I think that folks would like to get more clarity on or to have an opportunity to weigh in on certain aspects of it,” said Tracie Keesee, senior vice president of justice initiatives at the Center for Policing Equity, who previously worked in local law enforcement for more than 20 years.
The bill says the U.S. Attorney General “may” create grants for community-based policing efforts. But despite years of funding from the federal government, community policing has become an ambiguous concept that encompasses a range of tactics that departments use to engage civilians.
One strategy the bill promotes is federal grant funding to hire law enforcement officers who live in the communities they serve.
A 2014 FiveThirtyEight analysis determined that of the 75 U.S. cities with the largest police forces, 60 percent of officers lived outside city limits. To facilitate community trust, some departments have officers live in specific neighborhoods they patrol, but research is inconclusive on how this affects officer behavior, such as how and when they use force. However, studies do suggest that positive nonenforcement interactions with police can improve civilian satisfaction with law enforcement.
While many public officials, including President Joe Biden, look to community policing as an important component of reform, others do not believe it will lead to changed behavior.
“Community policing is based on this false notion that knowledge keeps people safe, that if the police just knew the people who they were surveilling and harassing, that they could somehow police safer,” Derecka Purnell, a human rights lawyer, activist and writer, said in an interview with the PBS NewsHour in September.
The Justice in Policing Act does not suggest community policing by name, but instead calls for the Department of Justice to work with community organizations to determine which programs might be effective and necessary.
Lon Bartel, a former law enforcement officer who now leads trainings for police and military with the company VirTra, supports the bill’s push for community policing, but is wary of its blanket restrictions on things like no-knock warrants and chokeholds, which he argues can be necessary in certain situations. Many reform advocates say officers misuse both tactics, which have faced increased criticism in the aftermath of highly publicized police killings of Black people, including Breonna Taylor and Eric Garner. Bartel said lawmakers should resist making “change for change’s sake” and use a research-based approach to training and reform programs.
The bill also seeks to expand and strengthen police accountability and transparency. The legislation would mandate the creation of a nationwide police misconduct registry and require state and local law enforcement agencies to report more comprehensive data on use of force.
Centralizing the collection of use of force data among the nation’s thousands of police agencies has been a challenge for years. The FBI’s National Use-of-Force Data Collection project, launched in 2019, received submissions covering only 40 percent of the total police population by 2020.
The misconduct database aims to prevent officers who are fired or leave one department for misconduct from being rehired by a different agency. It would include credible complaints filed against officers, as well as discipline and termination records. The public could see officers with misconduct records involving use of force or racial profiling, which would likely face strong opposition from police unions, Rappaport said. Police agencies would be able to view all data.
But a misconduct registry would not necessarily guarantee police departments will use that information when making hiring decisions.
“It only matters if you can check the database and then you’re going to care about what you see in the database, and there are multiple possible reasons why [police departments] don’t care,” Rappaport said, including indifference to an officer’s record or a lack of other hiring options.
The Democratic legislation would also lower the legal threshold required to convict an officer of a crime in the commission of their duty, but it would not necessarily lead more prosecutors to charge officers or juries to convict them.
The Henry A. Wallace Police Crime Database, a project from criminologist Philip Stinson and the Police Integrity Research Group, determined that 9,819 non-federal law enforcement officers were charged with one or more crimes between 2005 and 2015. Stinson’s data also shows that between 2005 and summer 2020, about 110 non-federal officers had been charged with murder or manslaughter for shooting someone on duty.
Between 2015 and 2020, The Washington Post found more than 5,000 fatal officer-involved shootings.
This data highlights just some of the potential challenges for robust police reform, even with sweeping legislation. In order to pass with Republican support in the Senate, the Justice in Policing Act would likely receive notable cuts to some provisions. Still, the wave of legislation introduced in Congress and in states and cities to address police reform shows how decision-makers are rethinking the systemic problems in law enforcement and the role of police in communities.
“The problems in the criminal legal system I don’t think can be fixed by one piece of legislation by any means,” Harawa said. “But what I do think it’s finally good to see is that the [Justice in Policing] bill really kind of recognizes race and the influence of race in various aspects of policing and tries to address it head on.”