Yet that is not the standard to which a country premised on equality before the law should hold its criminal justice system. Policing in the United States could be more effective and less threatening to minority communities. Officers who commit wrongdoings could face more certain punishments. Floyd’s death last spring appeared to spur a reckoning on U.S. policing, but that momentum has slowed in recent months.
A case in point is the effort in Congress to pass a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill. Negotiators had hoped to strike a deal by the May 25 anniversary of Floyd’s murder. Then they aimed to finish by Mr. Chauvin’s sentencing. Both deadlines have now passed. Negotiators said Thursday that they had made substantial progress. But they also admitted that finishing the talks would be difficult, and the Senate has recessed for two weeks. After lawmakers return, their attention will be on major infrastructure bills, and the window to act may close as the 2022 midterm elections approach.
House Democrats passed in March a sweeping policing reform bill that would create a national police misconduct database, impose new police training requirements, make it easier for federal attorneys to prosecute police abuses, and ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants. It would also curb “qualified immunity,” a legal doctrine shielding police officers from civil lawsuits — and thereby discouraging people with legitimate claims against police from seeking redress. But Republicans oppose the plan, dooming its prospects in the Senate.
Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.), along with Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), have sought compromise on qualified immunity and on how much to enable federal prosecutors to pursue criminal civil rights cases against officers. But they have yet to complete a deal.
They must keep trying, and not by simply giving up on issues such as qualified immunity. The Supreme Court imposed this doctrine with thin grounding in statutory text. It immunizes officers from civil penalties unless they commit a “clearly established” constitutional violation, which may not include even outrageous abuses unless officers have been successfully sued for similar violations in the past. Congress should clarify that federal law is not as permissive as the courts have declared. Mr. Booker has proposed limiting qualified immunity by placing more liability on police departments, rather than individual officers, a fair compromise that would give departments and their political overseers more incentive to restrain police violence.
George Floyd has been dead a year. His killer will be in prison for two decades to come. But his legacy is still up in the air.