House Passes Broad Police-Reform Bill

House Democrats and senior leadership from the Congressional Black Caucus gathered on the U.S. Capitol stairs Thursday to announce the vote for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. (Courthouse News photo/Brandi Buchman and Jack Rodgers)

WASHINGTON (CN) — George Floyd’s death sparked international protest, rocking the consciousness of millions who watched his life evaporate under the knee of a police officer, but in the throes of national outrage and despair, the House of Representatives took up the mantle to address racial inequities in policing and passed a sweeping reform bill that is not expected to survive in the Senate.

Passed by a vote of 236-181 and sponsored by Karen Bass, a California Democrat and chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act was met with fierce resistance by House Republicans.

GOP lawmakers took issue with the legislation’s key platforms, including its outright ban on carotid holds, its prohibition of no knock warrants in drug cases and its creation of a national registry for police misconduct — an initiative that would make it harder for problematic officers to jump jurisdictions without comprehensive tracing of their work history.

From the steps of Capitol Hill Thursday morning, exactly one month since Floyd was killed, chairwoman Bass underlined why the House was adamant the bill retain its current provisions.

“On May 25, 2020, our world changed,” Bass said. “This time was different. This time the video just couldn’t be questioned. The slow murder of George Floyd that took place over eight minutes and 46 seconds was just not up for speculation.”

Amid the tragedy of Floyd’s death and the subsequent outcry, it put front and center the pain and the “private ritual” of “the talk,” Bass said, noting the shared experience among black families warning each other to mind their behavior and “do whatever they are told, no matter how humiliating.”

“Because if you don’t, you might not survive,” Bass remarked.

Rep. Sheila Jackson, a Texas Democrat, announced the vote on the historic George Floyd Justice in Policing Act on Thursday. (Courthouse News photo/Brandi Buchman and Jack Rodgers)

The legislation seeks to end that ritual and reshape the way police protect and serve.

While it is not expected to pass in the Senate where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a day earlier relegated it as the product of partisanship “elevated to an art form,” the bill has 36 Senate cosponsors.

The passage of the Floyd Act leaves the Senate with two choices, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said: “To honor George Floyd’s life or do nothing.”

Tension between the congressional bodies stems from a fundamental dispute over the path forward to equitable and safe policing.

Senate Democrats blocked the GOP’s proposed Justice Act, but a parliamentary procedure invoked by McConnell kept the chance to debate the law’s merits alive and it could still be reanimated in some form on the Senate floor.

Republicans on Thursday focused largely on procedural issues related to the drafting of the bill in its early stages, pointing to a contested Judiciary Committee hearing last week where they offered 12 amendments, all of which were defeated.

When arguments for procedures ceased, Republicans like Tom McClintock of California, Louie Gohmert of Texas and Debbie Lesko of Arizona dismissed the Floyd Act as an infeasible Democratic wish list.

“There are racists of every color, of every society. It’s the baser society of human nature. No one has tried harder to ostracize their racists than Americans,” McClintock said.

Lesko echoed similar sentiments saying “all lives matter” from the floor before Gohmert railed against “Marxist crimewaves.”

Others, like Texas Republican Will Hurd, who will retire next year, said by passing the Floyd Act instead of negotiating amendments, America was “missing its opportunity to do their part from preventing another black person from dying in police custody.”

“Whether your skin is black or your uniform is blue, you should not feel targeted in this country,” Hurd said.

The lawmaker would eventually vote in favor of the bill, along with two other Republicans, Congressmen Fred Upton and Brian Fitzpatrick.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler contended that Republican amendments or stand-alone bills would not have produced the substantial change needed for true reform.

The Justice Act, sponsored by the Senate’s sole black Republican member Tim Scott of South Carolina, contains provisions directly contrary to those in the Floyd Act, chief among them, a difference over the namesake legislation’s centerpiece.

Instead of blocking chokeholds, the Justice Act incentivizes police not to use them.

Police in major cities have already banned specific types of neck restraints, like the New York Police Department which first banned chokeholds in 1993, the exception being when an officer’s life was in danger — Chicago’s police department followed suit in 2012. The ban alone however did not stop Eric Garner from being choked to death by Officer Daniel Pantaleo.

Pantaleo was fired but never indicted.

Protest signs hung on tall steel fences and barricades outside of the White House highlight the movement for racial justice that reignited in the United States following the police killing of George Floyd. (Courthouse News photo/Brandi Buchman and Jack Rodgers)

Representative Cedric Richmond eviscerated the Republican-backed Justice Act Thursday.

“That bill has about as much teeth as a newborn baby,” the Louisiana Democrat said. “They don’t want to see it because of blind loyalty to a self-absorbed leader who lacks the character or concern to care. America is not just burning, she is weeping. She is crying for American leadership to man up, to write in the laws in this country once and for all that black lives do matter.”

President Donald Trump signed an executive order last week focused on reforming chokeholds, but it carved out an exception for their use during life-endangering encounters.

Another breaking point between lawmakers was qualified immunity.

In its passage, the Floyd Act ends qualified immunity for government officials and police, a legal doctrine that first emerged in 1967 when Mississippi police arrested black clergymen who entered — they said mistakenly — a whites-only rest area.

When the Supreme Court faced the question of whether the white officers who arrested the black clergy members were liable for violating their rights, the justices came to a conclusion that would take over 20 years to be modified.

Since police were government employees, they were not liable, particularly if they were acting “in good faith” and considered their own actions just.

That deeply-subjective position shifted in 1982 when the high court reconsidered qualified immunity and determined that one official’s “good faith” was not sufficient.

Instead, immunity turned on whether a person’s rights were clearly violated under established law.

For proponents, qualified immunity is a welcome contingency, giving law enforcement the right to due process, as the White House suggested this week.

For others, like the 233 Democrats and three Republicans who support the Floyd Act, hundreds of civil rights organizations and the thousands of protesters who continue to demonstrate, it is little better than a shield protecting corrupt officers and a barrier to meaningful legal recourse for victims of excessive and deadly force.

In cases examining use of force and justifiable qualified immunity defenses between 2017-19, courts ruled in favor of police more than half of the time, according to a Reuters study.

“Right now, if it’s willful intent; we’re talking about what’s in somebody’s mind,” Bass told Courthouse News. “You can be reckless without examining what’s in someone’s mind. That’s one of the reasons why it never happens because a police officer always says, ‘I didn’t intend to, but I was in fear of my life.’ But you choked somebody for eight minutes and 46 seconds, you couldn’t have been in fear of your life. That’s the difference.”

With its passage in the House, the Floyd Act is left to a bitterly embroiled Senate — but many lawmakers said it was just the beginning of negotiations to reform police departments, not the end.

Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, sent opposed senators a message from the mothers of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and the father of John Crawford III, all killed by police chokehold or shooting.

“The unjust killing of a loved one, especially at the hands of a law enforcement officer is a pain too many families are forced to endure,” they said.

As the sun beat down on the Capitol steps, Jackson Lee said no one should be denied equality and that all are created equal under the law.

“Gianna Floyd said in the aftermath of the death of her father, ‘Daddy has changed the world,’” Jackson Lee said. “So as I stand here today, let me proclaim… that the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is not a figment of our imagination, it’s not an idea that we just wanted to exhibit our proudness of the law. This legislation is America’s legislation.”

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