The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

No deal on bill to overhaul policing in aftermath of protests over killing of Black Americans

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) speaks with a reporter before entering the chamber for a vote. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Bipartisan negotiations on overhauling the nation’s policing practices to stem the killings of Black Americans collapsed Wednesday, a stalemate emblematic of a divided Congress and the gulf between the parties over how to address racism in the country.

Democrats ended months of negotiations that began after the killing of George Floyd in May 2020 and subsequent nationwide protests. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), the party’s lead negotiators, said they had compromised repeatedly but Republicans sought more concessions.

“At the end of the day, it was clear that we were not making the progress that we needed to make,” Booker said.

Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), the lead Republican negotiator, blamed Democrats, claiming that their push to “defund” law enforcement made it impossible to agree on legislation. President Biden, Democratic congressional leaders, Bass and Booker have rejected the idea of slashing police departments’ budgets.

“After months of making progress, I am deeply disappointed that Democrats have once again squandered a crucial opportunity to implement meaningful reform to make our neighborhoods safer and mend the tenuous relationship between law enforcement and communities of color,” Scott said in a statement.

Republicans and Democrats had been eager to finalize bipartisan legislation last year after a national outcry over the killings of Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia focused national attention on law enforcement’s deteriorating relationship with Black communities and the broader issue of racism in the United States.

George Floyd’s America: Examining systemic racism and racial injustice in the post-civil rights era

But interest in the issue waned among Republicans after President Donald Trump ran for reelection on a law-and-order platform that focused on White voters, and congressional Republicans continued to portray Democrats as soft on crime and eager to gut police departments.

Still, the group of bipartisan negotiators met for months this year and continued to express optimism for a deal despite the lack of progress on key issues. On Wednesday, they dropped that pretense.

Police reform will probably be added to the list of issues activists close to Democrats will point to as reason to get rid of the Senate’s filibuster rule so the party can pass its priorities on a simple majority vote. That remains unlikely to happen, leaving Democratic leaders promising to find other ways to move forward on changes in policing.

In a statement, Biden said he was “deeply grateful” to the Democratic negotiators and faulted Republicans for rejecting “modest reforms” and “refusing to take action on key issues that many in law enforcement were willing to address.”

“In the coming weeks, we will continue to work with Senator Booker, Congresswoman Bass, and other members of Congress who are serious about meaningful police reform,” he said, leaving open the possibility of executive action on the issue.

The Democrats’ final offer omitted any changes to the legal doctrine of qualified immunity, or Section 242 of the Civil Rights Act, that would have caused officers to face expanded civil or criminal accountability — taking a major sticking point for Republicans off the table completely.

Qualified immunity, explained

In remarks to reporters at the Capitol on Wednesday afternoon, Booker said he had a brief conversation with Scott and that the group had not been making progress.

“When it comes to issues like raising professional standards, we couldn’t even agree to codify what Donald Trump did in his executive order,” Booker said, referring to steps announced by the former president last summer to offer new federal incentives for local police to bolster training and create a national database to track misconduct.

In a statement, Bass said Democrats had “accepted significant compromises, knowing that they would be a tough sell to our community, but still believing that we would be moving the needle forward on this issue.”

“But every time, more was demanded to the point that there would be no progress made in the bill that we were left discussing,” Bass said.

She added that there remains a “sense of urgency” among Democrats on the issue, and she called on Biden and the White House to “use the full extent of their constitutionally mandated power to bring about meaningful police reform.”

Scott identified a different obstacle on his side of the table: The way the bill would have enforced even a reduced set of new federal mandates.

Under the Democrats’ plan, as with scores of other federal programs, individual departments and jurisdictions would have been compelled to follow specific policies, which included banning chokeholds and eliminating “no-knock” warrants, or they would lose access to federal grant funding that totals hundreds of millions of dollars per year.

That, Scott said, amounted to “defunding the police” — linking the policy to the push among some liberal activists and lawmakers to divert public dollars from police departments toward other government services.

Although Biden and top congressional Democrats have rejected the push, Republicans have sought to leash the Democratic Party to it.

“To compel behavior, they wanted to reduce the current level of grants. That’s something we can’t do,” Scott said. “The question at the table was simply, if noncompliance meant defunding the police, that is hard for me — coming from really challenging communities — to say that the police was going to be better off.”

Scott did not publicly detail any alternative manner of compelling departments to meet federal standards.

Throughout the talks, Democrats had made eliminating — or at least loosening — the doctrine of qualified immunity a cornerstone of their overhaul efforts. Republicans by and large had resisted making any changes, arguing that exposing police officers to lawsuits could cause them to adopt less aggressive and less effective tactics.

On Wednesday, Booker said that not only was it “clear” that negotiators had stopped making progress, but that recent communications “showed me that we were actually moving away from it.”

“The frustration has been grand. . . . I don’t know if there’s anything I’ve put more hours on in such an intensive period of time and to get these highs, where you get police leaders that you never thought [would] come aboard on the big issues, and then we couldn’t even get a lot of the other issues,” Booker said.

Booker said he had spoken to Ben Jealous, an attorney representing some of the families of victims of police violence, about next steps.

“Nothing’s over yet,” he said.

The push to remake policing takes decades, only to begin again

Booker also said he was heartened by the support his efforts won from police groups, including the National Fraternal Order of Police and the International Association of Chiefs of Police. But in the end, he said, his Republican counterparts would not agree on even relatively minor provisions of the bill, such as data gathering.

Booker declined to blame Scott, the only Black Republican senator, for the breakdown.

“He and I have a gulf between us on this issue. We have talked a lot about our philosophical differences, but I value his friendship,” Booker said. “I will say very firmly we disagree on a lot of issues, and in this case, I’m disappointed that we have these disagreements.”

Advocates for reform in policing expressed dismay at the news and said the issue remains a top priority.

“In a year unlike any other, when the American people spoke up, marched, and demanded reforms in policing, law enforcement unions and partisan politicians chose to stand on the wrong side of history,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson said in a statement. “They have chosen to stand with those who have lynched the very people they are meant to protect and serve.”

Lawyers Ben Crump and Antonio Romanucci urged Democrats to bring the House-passed George Floyd Justice in Policing Act to the Senate floor, “so Americans can see who is looking out for their communities’ best interests.”

“We cannot let this be a tragic, lost opportunity to regain trust between citizens and police,” they said.

Holly Harris, executive director of the Justice Action Network, which has worked closely with lawmakers, activists and police groups to broker a deal, said the collapse of the talks was “not a surprise” given their partisan origins and the close public attention on them.

But the biggest obstacle, she said, was lost momentum as the shock of Floyd’s killing receded and other issues took the spotlight.

“When the window opens for significant reform, you’ve got to dive through that window,” she said. “You’ve just got to dive through it, because in this day and age of ugly, acidic public rhetoric, the pendulum swings back and forth, and it’s really hard to sustain momentum for anything.”

Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, said that he, too, felt disappointment over the collapse of the negotiations.

Pasco said his group had an interest in coming to a deal to “heal the wounds and narrow the gap between police officers and the communities they serve,” and he said even a narrower bill might have made progress toward that goal.

“We didn’t step backwards. We just stopped,” he said. “Some progress was made, and some misconceptions on all sides were cleared up, so some minimal good came out of it, but not anywhere near what we had hoped for.”

Both Harris and Pasco said they were ready to engage when — not if — the issue returns to the public eye.

“It’s sad but true — these issues are not going away,” Harris said.

Robert Samuels contributed to this report.

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