The architect of the GOP’s failed police reform bill said Wednesday that he was talking to senior House Democrats and moving closer to a potential deal on the thorny issue that had consumed policy circles in Washington following George Floyd’s death.
Speaking alongside Attorney General William Barr after a meeting with church leaders in Columbia, South Carolina, Sen. Tim Scott said he had spoken recently with Rep. Karen Bass, a California Democrat who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, and had signaled his willingness to compromise on sticking points like qualified immunity, a legal defense that shields police officers from civil liability.
“Folks who are now calling me about the legislation from the other side suggest that perhaps it’s not dead. We may have a Lazarus moment, we may not,” the South Carolina Republican said.
The optimism from Scott comes after his bill was blocked last month by Senate Democrats, who had criticized it as an inadequate response to nationwide calls for action to address police misconduct and racial injustice. Weeks of protests across the country after Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer on Memorial Day had stirred lawmakers in both parties, but reform from Washington has so far proved limited.
On Wednesday, Scott said he had moved back to the “drawing board” on the bill, and pointed toward a proposal to gather data on incidents of racial profiling by police as one area of newly found common ground with Democrats. He also said that victims of police abuse and their families should have greater ability to sue police departments and cities for wrongdoing – a slight moderation of the qualified immunity principle, which had been one of the insurmountable gulfs between the parties last month.
Scott has floated the position in other public remarks in recent days, and he said there should also be a “moat around the officer” to protect them from civil liability. Scott had previously said that abolishing qualified immunity was a “poison pill” for Republicans, but his new proposal remains a far cry from what Democrats have called for and it’s unclear if he could win enough support on the issue to push a compromise package forward.
“If they don’t come to the table with that type of concessions made, that means that they’re more interested in winning elections than they are at police reform,” Scott said. “The good news is the folks I’ve spoken to over the last three or four days are all at the table and they’re all Democrats who are interested in getting to a yes.”
“The more (Bass) has taken a look at the bill, the more she has suggested that perhaps half or two-thirds of a loaf might be better than none,” he added.
Barr, who had flown to South Carolina to meet with Scott on the issue, also called for measures that would address concerns from African Americans about unfair treatment by the police, but warned against changes that defund and demonize police forces.
Barr has prioritized boosting the morale of local police over reform as he’s led the Justice Department, although he has made room for slight shifts in recent weeks.
An executive order signed by President Donald Trump in June will give the Justice Department responsibility for moderate police reform efforts, like the creation and publication of information from a database that tracks abusive officers, but reform advocates have voiced skepticism of Barr’s commitment to carrying out the effort.
Barr and Scott met with law enforcement leaders from the state later on Wednesday.
“I think we have to avoid extremes and recognize that it’s a question of prudence and balance,” Barr said. “It’s not defunding the police or doing away with the police or demonizing the police, nor is it giving short shrift to the legitimate concerns that are out there about police abuses and overreach.”
In an interview with ABC News released later on Wednesday, Barr said that the unfair scrutiny of African Americans by police amounts to a “widespread phenomenon.” Barr has previously said he does not think law enforcement is “systemically racist” but he has acknowledged that Floyd’s death had “driven home” a breakdown in the criminal justice system that disfavored African Americans.
“I do think it is a widespread phenomenon that African American males, in particular, are treated with extra suspicion and maybe not given the benefit of the doubt,” Barr told ABC.
In the interview Wednesday, Barr said “obviously Black lives matter” – accepting the rallying cry that has bordered on taboo in the Trump administration.
Barr, however, told ABC News that the phrase was “distorting the debate to some extent, because it is used really to refer almost exclusively to Black lives that are lost to police misconduct,” he said. “Then you compare it to 8,000 homicides in the African American community, those are Black lives that matter, too. And those are lives that are protected by the police.”
Barr told the network that he hopes Floyd’s death “is a catalyst for the kinds of changes that are needed,” adding that he had thought before the killing that “we were in a good place” in terms of police-community relations, but Floyd’s death “showed that we still have some work to do in addressing the distrust that exists in the African American community toward law enforcement.”
This story has been updated with additional developments.