Bipartisan police reform push crumbles in Congress

The development comes after lawmakers failed to meet a deadline set by President Joe Biden

By Jessie Van Berkel, Hunter Woodall
Star Tribune

WASHINGTON — Congressional negotiators said they are breaking off bipartisan talks on a police reform package sparked by George Floyd's killing, after failing to reach a deal under intense pressure from the White House.

The development comes after lawmakers failed to meet a deadline set by Democratic President Joe Biden to reach consensus by the May 25 anniversary of the Minnesota man's death.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., arrives at the Senate chamber at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021, after bipartisan congressional talks on overhauling policing practices ended without an agreement.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., arrives at the Senate chamber at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021, after bipartisan congressional talks on overhauling policing practices ended without an agreement. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

"After months of exhausting every possible pathway to a bipartisan deal, it remains out of reach right now," said New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker in a statement announcing the news. "Even after working collaboratively with and securing the support of policing groups like the Fraternal Order of Police and International Association of Chiefs of Police for our proposals."

Finding a path forward on police reform has been a major issue facing Biden and congressional Democrats during the president's first year in office. After lawmakers failed to meet the May deadline, Biden met privately with Floyd's family on the anniversary of Floyd's killing by a Minneapolis police officer. The family also met with key lawmakers in Washington, urging them to pass police reform legislation.

"I still hope to sign into law a comprehensive and meaningful police reform bill that honors the name and memory of George Floyd, because we need legislation to ensure lasting and meaningful change," Biden said in a statement Wednesday. "But this moment demands action, and we cannot allow those who stand in the way of progress to prevent us from answering the call."

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He said the administration is going to continue to work with members of Congress who are "serious about meaningful police reform." He said they will consult with civil rights advocates, law enforcement and victims' families to "define a path forward, including through potential further executive actions I can take to advance our efforts to live up to the American ideal of equal justice under law."

House Democrats passed the Biden-backed George Floyd Justice in Policing Act back in March amid vocal GOP pushback. The bill included an effort to reform qualified immunity among other measures focused on overhauling policing. Qualified immunity can be used to protect the liability of officers in civil legal actions.

In the months that followed, a key group of lawmakers including Booker, California Rep. Karen Bass and South Carolina GOP Sen. Tim Scott tried to find a bipartisan solution that could pass during tense partisan times in Washington but came up short.

Minnesota delegation members remained divided Wednesday on the scale of policing changes they would support.

Republican Rep. Pete Stauber, a former police officer who took part in some negotiations, said they were productive for a while, but many Democrats "grew tired of my strong support for law enforcement."

" Democrats ultimately chose to push forward policies that would take resources away from law enforcement and make our communities less safe. Their attempts to defund the police were incredibly frustrating and downright unacceptable," Stauber said.

The conversations can only succeed if they focus on "commonsense, non-partisan policies that improve accountability and strengthen the relationships between law enforcement and the communities they protect," said GOP Rep. Tom Emmer.

Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar, meanwhile, said Floyd's murder sparked a global push to "finally address systemic racism and reimagine public safety."

"It was these demands for change that helped elect Joe Biden. We must do everything in our power to fulfill those promises, whether that means through reconciliation or reforming the filibuster," Omar said in a statement.

Sen. Tina Smith blamed Republicans for the breakdown in talks. "We could not accept a bill that merely preserves the status quo, and since Republican negotiators would not support a bill that made meaningful change, it is time to find another path forward," said the Minnesota Democrat.

Over the past year and a half since Floyd's death, advocates have continued to press Congress to act on police reform.

In April, after a jury found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering Floyd, the Floyd family and attorneys held a news conference where they expressed relief but also called for national police reform. Attorney Ben Crump said at the time that they got a call from Biden as they were leaving the courthouse. He said they talked to the president about, "What a moment this was for America, and how we have to use this moment to build on."

On Wednesday, Crump and fellow civil rights attorney Antonio Romanucci released a statement expressing disappointment in Congress's inability to reach a solution on federal police reform.

"We can not let this be a tragic, lost opportunity to regain trust between citizens and police," Crump and Romanucci said. "We strongly urge Democratic senators to bring the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act to the floor for a vote so Americans can see who is looking out for their communities' best interests and who is ready to listen to their constituents so we can together put the country on a better, more equitable path for all."

The negotiation breakdown in Washington comes as Minneapolis is locked in an intense battle over the future of policing, with a proposal on the November ballot that would clear the way for the city to replace the police department with a Department of Public Safety. Floyd's death prompted pushes for change at all levels of government over the past year, from Congress to City Hall to the Minnesota Capitol where legislators have passed some law enforcement accountability measures, although reform advocates said they did not go far enough.

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