Senate gridlock stalls police reform bills

police reform

A new poll revealed that a year since George Floyd’s murder, a large gap still exists in how Black and White Americans view racism and police violence. This gap surfaces in the congressional gridlock that threatens to derail ongoing efforts at police reform.

An Associated Press-NORC poll conducted in April found 77% of Blacks say police violence against civilians is very or extremely serious compared to 36% of Whites. This large gap hasn’t changed much since previous polls: July 2015 (73% Blacks, 19% Whites), September 2019 (72% Blacks, 36% Whites), June 2020 (82% Blacks, 39% Whites) and September 2020 (76% Blacks, 35% Whites).

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in March, but the bill is now stalled in the Senate. President Joe Biden last month strongly urged both houses of Congress to pass it and have it on his desk for signing on or before the May 25 one-year anniversary of Floyd’s death.

“I’m a strong supporter [of the bill] and helped to put it together last summer after Mr. Floyd’s murder,” U.S. Senator Tina Smith (D-MN) recently told the MSR. She and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) are the bill’s co-sponsors. “I’ve been in almost daily [contact] with Sen. Booker, who is our lead in negotiating” a bipartisan police reform package with Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC).  “It’s a complex negotiation,” she noted.

Among the Floyd bill’s key provisions are ending qualified immunity for police officers and establishing a national standard for police use of force that requires its use be necessary and a last resort.

According to reports, Republicans oppose doing away with qualified immunity. “Cory told me that they’d spent a lot of hours trying to hash it out and make progress,” explained Smith. “It’s well known that the discussion around qualified immunity is a big part of the challenge. What I can say [publicly] is I know that they’re trying to find ways to work it through.

“I also believe that it is very, very important that we have some sort of a strong national standard for police use of force,” continued the junior senator. “I think they found good agreement around issues of racial profiling, chokeholds, and I hope about eliminating no-knock warrants.”

Although disappointed that President Biden’s May 25 deadline wasn’t met, Smith said, “The need for reforms to policing and public safety are hundreds of years overdue. Obviously they’re not going to hit the May 25 goal with the President, but he [Booker] feels like there is a real chance that they could do something significant.

“There are important steps in the right direction.  Getting better accountability is what we all want.”

Smith also noted the importance of two of the Senate’s three Black senators, Booker and Scott, are very involved in making the Floyd bill work for both parties. “I think Scott is swimming upstream against his party to try to do something because he himself knows what it feels like to be profiled as a Black man.” Scott is the GOP’s only Black senator.

A second police reform-related bill, the Supporting Innovation in Public Safety Act, was authored by Smith. If passed, it would help state, local and Tribal governments to pursue innovative policing reform.

Courtesy of U.S. Senator Tina Smith

“I really think we should be thinking about public safety and not law enforcement, because they should be about everybody being safe, feeling safe and secure in their homes and their neighborhoods and our communities,” stated Smith. “My bill would set up a new kind of grant program that would specifically support innovation in public safety and innovation in reforming how policing happens.

“It has been included in Sen. Booker’s negotiations [on the Floyd bill],” she said, adding that her bill can be a separate piece of legislation as well. 

Smith said she shares the same frustrations that many citizens have on why Congress can’t seem to pass meaningful legislation. Many believe that the current Senate filibuster rule, a longstanding tactic used by the minority party to block legislation it opposes, might need to go.

“One of the reasons that we see this gridlock in the Senate is because the minority is the Republican Party—they are always trying to stop progress,” she complained. “This is why I believe that we need to get rid of or severely reform the filibuster. It is a recipe for slowing down progress: The filibuster was designed to slow down process and progress.”

Smith said that a year after protests against police violence and other racial inequities sparked across the country by George Floyd’s murder last May amidst a pandemic, systemic change still is needed. “I think one of the good things about COVID, as terrible as it has been, as painful as it has been, is that this last 15 months has made it virtually impossible for people to look away from the racial injustice in our society anymore.”