President Joe Biden and the Democratic-controlled Congress are facing increasing pressure this week from Black civil rights leaders who say federal lawmakers have made little progress with police reform one year after George Floyd’s death.
Activists say they are demanding that the Senate pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which remains stalled amid Republican opposition, though bipartisan negotiators are optimistic about their recent progress.
The bill — which includes provisions to set up a national registry of police misconduct, a ban on racial and religious profiling by law enforcement and an overhaul of so-called qualified immunity for police officers — was passed by the House in March. House Democrats had initially introduced and passed the bill last year, but it was blocked by the Senate, which was under Republican control at the time.
While Biden has said he supports the bill, some leaders say if Congress won’t act, they want to see the President’s administration reviving Obama-era panels to review policing practices and investigating police agencies in more cities. Other civil rights activists, however, say the nation needs police reform legislation more than anything and they are hopeful that Congress will pass it and Biden will sign it.
Supporters of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act say it would boost police accountability and help eradicate racial bias in policing. In the last two months, video has surfaced of police encounters that turned fatal for Andrew Brown Jr., Daunte Wright, Ronald Green, Ma’Khia Bryant and Adam Toledo.
Democratic Rep. Karen Bass of California, the lead House negotiator on the bill, said she is optimistic that Congress will be able to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, but lawmakers need more time. Bass told CNN’s Chris Cuomo this week that police accountability provisions have been a major point of contention for Republicans and Democrats with the bill.
For example, overhauling qualified immunity — a controversial federal doctrine that protects officers accused of violating the Constitution while on duty — has been a sticking point.
“We’re all having discussions in good faith,” Bass said. “Everybody knows that holding officers accountable is one of the most important things we can do. We are tired of seeing video after video” of police killings.
Floyd family meets with federal lawmakers
Floyd’s family and their attorneys met with Biden and other lawmakers on Tuesday in Washington.
Civil rights attorney Ben Crump said after the meeting that police reform is long overdue and that he and the Floyd family will continue to press Congress to pass it.
“This is an American issue,” Crump said. “This isn’t a police issue or a civil rights issue. We have to look at this as a national issue that we have avoided dealing with for far too long.”
Cedric Richmond, senior adviser to Biden and director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that Biden explained to the Floyd family on Tuesday that he didn’t want the police reform legislation to be rushed. The family, he said, supported Biden, saying they wanted a policing system that was both safe and constitutional.
“I think we have to give them the space and support to get that done, because this is important,” Richmond said. “This is a matter of life and death, and too many people are dying.”
Activists ‘frustrated’ by stalled police reform
Some racial justice activists say they are growing impatient with the lack of progress.
Melina Abdullah, co-director of Black Lives Matter Grassroots, said Black voters helped elect Biden and congressional Democrats and deserve substantive change when it comes to police violence.
Abdullah and other Black activists have noted how Congress quickly passed the hate crimes bill aimed at addressing the rise in anti-Asian attacks but won’t pass police reform that could save the lives of Black people. Biden signed the hate crimes bill last Thursday.
“I not only understand the frustration, I feel the frustration,” Abdullah said.
As police reform remains stalled in Congress, the Biden administration has taken some steps toward addressing police violence and police misconduct.
Last month, the US Department of Justice announced it was launching pattern or practice investigations into police departments in Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, and Louisville, Kentucky, where Breonna Taylor was killed by officers serving a no-knock warrant at her apartment last year. The Justice Department has ongoing pattern or practice probes into the Orange County, California, District Attorney’s Office and Sheriff’s Department and the Springfield, Massachusetts, Police Department.
There are also 16 active settlements with law enforcement agencies, including 12 consent decrees with agencies including the Baltimore Police Department, Ferguson Police Department and Cleveland Division of Police.
Community activists say they want the Justice Department to probe police agencies in other cities such as Columbus, Ohio, and Elizabeth City, North Carolina, as well.
Some racial justice activists have been pleading for lawmakers to defund police and reimagine public safety for the last year.
While more than a dozen US cities have cut their police budgets and reinvested in the Black and brown community, Biden maintains that he opposes defunding police.
“We have to put more money in police work so we have legitimate community policing and we’re in a situation where we change the legislation,” Biden said during a town hall event in February. “No one should go to jail for a drug offense. No one should go to jail for the use of a drug. They should go to drug rehabilitation.”
Gerald Griggs, an Atlanta-based attorney and civil rights activist, said the Black community is “very concerned” that police reform wasn’t passed in Biden’s first 100 days in office.
Griggs said he wants the Biden administration to draft an executive order empowering the Task Force on 21st Century Policing that former President Barack Obama created in 2014 after the police killing of Michael Brown. The wide-ranging investigations and consent decrees that defined the Obama administration’s approach to police misconduct all but disappeared under President Donald Trump.
“I think African Americans are frustrated,” Griggs said. “We marched, we protested, we’ve had conversations and yet nothing has happened. We have yet to see this administration take a real step toward addressing the issue.”
Support from some Black leaders
Some civil rights leaders said Biden has done everything in his power to get police reform legislation over the finish line, including pressuring Congress to pass it.
Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, said the stalled police reform is the result of a “Republican blockade” in the Senate. Biden, he said, is not accountable for that and is still addressing the Black agenda by nominating two civil rights activists to the Justice Department and getting the American Rescue Plan passed.
“I think the President has been responsible to the coalition that elected him,” Morial said. “The President’s focus on racial justice in his first 100 days has been greater than any president in modern history.”
NAACP President Derrick Johnson, who met with the Floyd family along with Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, one of the chief Senate negotiators on the policing bill, and Bass on Tuesday, said he feels encouraged by lawmakers’ ongoing negotiations on the legislation.
Johnson said he wants Congress to ensure that the bill includes every provision to create safer environments for communities and build trust with police.
“Having a delay to get substance is a good delay,” Johnson told CNN. “And if they need more time to negotiate the right deal so that we can move forward as a nation, that is a good thing.”