As President Joe Biden looks to build momentum for police reform in his address to a joint session of Congress this week, there is some optimism in Washington about the potential for a bipartisan compromise that would finally create more accountability for law enforcement. But beyond the beltway, there is also deep frustration and anger in the streets of America as young men and women of color keep getting injured and killed by police.
The murder conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who killed George Floyd last May, demonstrated accountability in one case that was a cause for celebration among activists last week. But the troubling series of police shootings in the days that followed has underscored how one verdict will not produce the kind of transformational societal and cultural change that is needed to stop the disproportionate killings and injuries of Black and Brown people during encounters with police.
Both the verdict and outrage about the recent incidents have created new energy behind the push for federal police accountability legislation, with both Democrats and Republicans saying Sunday that they see hope for a compromise on the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.
Rep. Karen Bass, a California Democrat who is leading the negotiations with Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, said Sunday that a critical piece of reforming the system will be setting national standards to guide police conduct and the use of force.
“We have 18,000 police departments and no national standards, which is why you see some practices legal in some areas and illegal in other areas,” Bass said on ABC’s “This Week.” She added that even if her legislation passes Congress, there will still be much work to do at the local level to prevent these all-too-common police shootings: “We know that officers are trained to shoot to kill, but maybe much more emphasis could be placed on de-escalation – why some incidences result in people being killed. Maybe there were other ways to respond other than firing.”
Those questions about deadly force are fresh on the minds of Americans after the police shootings of the last week. Newly released 911 audio on Friday showed that 32-year-old Isaiah Brown, who is Black, was shot by a Virginia sheriff’s deputy early Wednesday while he was talking to a 911 dispatcher. An attorney for Brown’s family, David Haynes, said in a statement that Brown was “on the phone with 911 at the time of the shooting and the officer mistook a cordless house phone for gun.”
The deputy has been placed on administrative leave while the incident is being investigated, but Virginia State Police told CNN Brown was unarmed. He has serious but not life-threatening injuries.
The death of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant, who was shot and killed by a Columbus, Ohio, police officer about 30 minutes before the guilty verdict was delivered in the Chauvin trial, has touched off protests and another heated debate over how officers could try to de-escalate conflicts before pulling their weapons. Body camera video of that shooting showed Bryant lunging toward another young woman with a knife when she was shot.
And a new dispatch audio recording, posted to the archives of the website Broadcastify, captured the moments after Andrew Brown Jr. was shot and killed by deputies on Wednesday morning in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. First responders can be heard saying he was shot in the back. Details about that incident have been difficult to get and seven deputies were placed on administrative leave after the shooting, which occurred while they were attempting to serve Brown with an arrest warrant.
Brown’s death has sparked both protests and widespread calls for the officers’ body camera footage to be released publicly, including from North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat. The district attorney for the region and the Pasquotank County attorney said in a joint statement Thursday that the body camera footage cannot be released without a court order.
When considered together, the circumstances of the shootings illuminate the complexity of the nation’s problems with police training, systemic racism and the culture this nation has fostered in which police too often resort to the use of deadly force. At the same time demonstrators are demanding change, some Republican-led states are passing laws that would make protesters more vulnerable. For example, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, signed a bill last week that grants immunity to drivers who unintentionally injure or kill protesters while attempting to flee a demonstration.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that six in 10 Americans believe more should be done to hold police accountable for the mistreatment of Black people, while 33% say the US is doing too much to interfere with how they do they their jobs. But there was a sharp partisan divide on that finding: 85% of Democrats and 58% of independents said the country should do more to hold officers accountable for their mistreatment of Black people, compared with only 31% of Republicans.
In part because of that political polarization, there is still broad disagreement between the two parties about how far Congress should go to punish police misconduct.
The most recent shootings illustrate how the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act will only address some aspects of the problem, and would not necessarily have prevented any of the violence that unfolded last week. The bill has already passed the House, but has faced a more difficult path in the evenly divided Senate, where Democrats lack the votes to overcome a Republican filibuster.
Still, there are new signs of optimism that Republican and Democratic lawmakers are serious about trying to make a deal. Bass says she hopes the two sides can put together a framework by late May, which would be the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s murder. Scott floated a potential compromise last week on reforming qualified immunity, arguing that police departments could be held accountable even if individual officers are still shielded. The South Carolina Republican has said some Democrats he has spoken with are open to his compromise and he doesn’t believe Republicans are far apart on the issues.
GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Sunday that he believes there is a way to find compromise on qualified immunity.
“We can solve the issues if there’s will to get there, and I think there’s will to get there on the part of both parties now,” Graham told Fox News’ Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday.”
But a number of progressive Democrats are voicing their concerns that Scott’s compromise on qualified immunity would not go far enough in holding police officers accountable.
On Sunday, progressive freshman Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri questioned why police officers are entitled to a “safety net” – in the form of qualified immunity – when other professionals who deal with life-or-death situations do not have the same protection.
“The safety net shouldn’t be there,” Bush told CNN’s Abby Phillip on “Inside Politics.” “Where are all of the special protections for nursing and for other people in other positions that do very dangerous work?”
“We compromise on so much. You know, we compromise, we die. We compromise, we die,” Bush added when asked about the compromise on qualified immunity floated by Scott, which she doesn’t support. “I didn’t come to Congress to compromise on what could keep us alive. … If you don’t hurt people, if you don’t kill people, if you are just and fair in your work, then do you need the qualified immunity anyway?”
Rep. Stacey Plaskett, a Democratic congressional delegate for the US Virgin Islands, explained the passion behind the progressive push to change qualified immunity during an interview with CNN’s Pamela Brown on Saturday night.
“Qualified immunity has in many instances become the hood for bad police officers to, in fact, act as modern-day Ku Klux Klan members against Black and Brown people in this country. And it has got to stop,” Plaskett said. “The most conservative members of the Supreme Court say that Congress needs to do something about qualified immunity. And we cannot shirk our responsibility to victims and Americans at large because we are afraid of the unions, or talking points, or those on the right who have used the blue wall as a shield against American justice.”
Meanwhile, Scott said he opposes Democratic efforts to lower the legal standard to prosecute individual officers, which Bass said is a key issue for Democrats, who are pushing to change federal law to ensure that police officers can be charged for “reckless” conduct, rather than “willful” misconduct under existing law – currently a higher bar to meet in court.
Biden administration steps up its visibility on the issue
Biden plans to make a push for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in his first address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, marking his first 100 days in office and laying out his priorities going forward. Newly confirmed members of his Justice Department are also taking a more active role on the issue.
Attorney General Merrick Garland, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco and Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta met in person at the Justice Department, and virtually, with police chiefs from major cities and influential police leaders from around the country Friday to discuss ideas for police reform, according to a spokesman for the attorney general. Garland also announced last week that he was opening a federal civil investigation into policing practices in Minneapolis.
Though the Biden administration has mainly taken a hands-off approach to police accountability legislation, suggesting that Congress should take the lead, Americans will be looking for answers from the new President Wednesday night on how he plans to stop these senseless killings.
When asked by CNN’s Dana Bash in an interview whether she planned to get more personally involved in brokering a compromise, Vice President Kamala Harris implied that the onus is still on Congress.
“We’ve made our position clear, each of us,” Harris said, referring to Biden and herself, “and as an administration we’ve made our position clear. But it is for the folks in the Senate to work together, to resolve whatever may be differences of opinion about the details of the legislation.”
“I think there’s no question that the American people, in a bipartisan way, realize and want that there will be some reform of the system,” Harris added.
Her comments once again underscored that it is not yet clear how much political capital the White House is willing to spend to help draw Senate Republicans on board to reach a compromise – and create a real chance for substantive change.
This story has been updated with additional details Sunday.
Chandelis Duster and Nicky Robertson contributed to this report.