The Republicans chose as their lead negotiator Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), the only African American GOP senator. Scott has spoken with some eloquence about his own mistreatment by police. At times I’ve entertained the possibility that he might actually be sincere in wanting to get a reform bill passed. The cynical and misleading statement he released Wednesday, however, disabused me of any such notion.
“Despite having plenty of agreement, Democrats said no because they could not let go of their push to defund our law enforcement,” Scott claimed. That is a lie.
As the Democrats’ chief negotiator, Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), has made abundantly clear — to the point of hamming it up on the Senate floor — Democrats are not seeking to “defund the police,” despite what Fox News may be telling its viewers. Last month, in passing a $3.5 trillion budget resolution, Senate Democrats voted unanimously for a Republican amendment to slash federal funds for any municipality that defunds its police department. This is not a real issue, and Scott knows it.
Quite real, by contrast, is McConnell’s apparent decision to deny President Biden and the Democrats anything they can characterize as a win. He is even willing to irresponsibly withhold GOP votes from any measure that raises the debt ceiling — which must be done, McConnell well knows, to avert economic calamity. If Republicans would go that far to hamstring the Biden administration, even keeping in mind the unpopularity of previous shutdowns, it is no surprise that they would also say no to police reform.
And that “plenty of agreement” didn’t include a crucial issue: proposed changes to the broad legal protections from civil suits or criminal prosecution that police officers accused of misconduct currently enjoy, and that critics call a form of impunity. Booker said that two powerful police unions, the National Fraternal Order of Police and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, had agreed to “some pretty incredible things” in this area “that would have improved the profession, that would have protected police officers.”
But Republicans did not want to be at odds with the National Sheriffs' Association, which took a more hard-line position against meaningful changes to existing protections. Sheriffs play a particularly powerful role in Scott’s state.
So is this the end of the line for police reform? In terms of federal legislation, the disgraceful answer seems to be yes, at least for now. But that doesn’t mean that nothing has changed — or that further change is impossible.
Under Attorney General Merrick Garland, the Justice Department once again has a Civil Rights Division worthy of the name. The Justice Department has opened “pattern and practice” investigations — looking for patterns of unlawful or unconstitutional policing — into the police departments in Minneapolis (where Floyd was killed), Louisville (where Breonna Taylor was killed) and Phoenix (where there have been allegations of mistreatment of homeless people). Such probes usually end with departments agreeing to specific reforms.
But it is hardly efficient to try to change discriminatory or lethal police practices city by city. And while the Justice Department has banned chokeholds and limited no-knock entries by federal law enforcement agencies, these curbs have no impact at the local level. Biden promised to take “further executive actions” but said he still believes “we need legislation to ensure lasting and meaningful change.”
How such legislation might reach Biden’s desk, however, is now unclear. The Democratic Party — led in the police reform talks by Booker and Rep. Karen Bass (Calif.) — has shown it is willing to negotiate and win support from skeptics such as the police unions. But across the table is a Republican Party that is fine with letting a doctor or a nurse be sued by any random individual for performing a constitutionally protected abortion — but will not let a police officer be sued for committing an unlawful and fatal assault.
I am disappointed but I refuse to despair. I continue to believe that this nation was changed by Floyd’s killing, the demonstrations that followed and the conviction of his murderer, Derek Chauvin. Republicans in Congress have chosen to make a stand on the wrong side of history.