One year after George Floyd’s death, there’s cautious optimism for police reform

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(CBS NEWS)–Philonise Floyd, the brother of George Floyd, emerged from the ornate Lyndon Baines Johnson Room on the second floor of the U.S. Capitol. He had just finished a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer along with other families of police violence victims, including Eric Garner, Botham Jean and Terence Crutcher. A black mask covered his face with the numbers 8:46 – the length of time his brother was originally believed to have been pinned to the ground by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Testimony during the Chauvin trial later revealed it was actually 9 minutes and 29 seconds. 

“This legislation has my brother’s blood on it and all the other families’ blood on it,” he told a small group of reporters squeezed in front of an elevator bank outside of the Senate chamber. “We’re hurting, we’re still in pain.” 

It’s been one month since his last visit to Capitol Hill to lobby for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which passed the House in March. With its fate now in the hands of the Senate, the Floyd family is returning to Washington Tuesday to meet privately with President Biden at the White House on the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s killing — although it won’t be for a signing ceremony. 

In a joint address to Congress in April, the president implored Congress to finish police reform by the anniversary of Floyd’s death. 

“The president is still very hopeful that he will be able to sign the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act into law,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday. “We are very closely engaged with negotiators while also leaving [the Senate] room to work.”  

Congressional negotiations have intensified in recent weeks, led by New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker, who spoke with the president Friday, South Carolina GOP Senator Tim Scott, and California Congresswoman Karen Bass, a Democrat. 

“This anniversary serves as a painful reminder of why we must make meaningful change,” the trio said in a joint statement Monday.  “While we are still working through our differences on key issues, we continue to make progress toward a compromise and remain optimistic about the prospects of achieving that goal.”

While most House members have returned to their districts for a work period with their constituents, Bass is staying in Washington this week for meetings.

“We obviously are not going to make the May 25 deadline but I don’t have any reason to think it’s going to be two months later,” Bass told CBS News. “Right now, I don’t have any reason to think it won’t be more than a couple of weeks.” 

One of the key sticking points has been whether to end qualified immunity, which shields officers from lawsuits and civil liability.     

“Everybody has been a little over-focused on qualified immunity because there’s a lot more to the bill than that,” she said.  “We have not come to an agreement on qualified immunity — that’s an overstatement — but I do think that we are closer and are trying to look for various solutions.”

In a letter Friday, House progressives urged Congressional leaders not to drop the elimination of qualified immunity to make a deal with Republicans. 

“Given that police violence, as a weapon of structural racism, continues to have devastating and deadly consequences for Black and brown lives across our country, we strongly urge you to not only maintain but strengthen the provision eliminating qualified immunity as negotiations in the Senate continue,” the progressives wrote.

Scott told reporters last week he is “on the exact opposite side” and has floated a proposal to hold departments accountable, rather than individual officers.

Lawmakers have also been deadlocked over changing Section 242 of the U.S. Code to require a jury to decide whether a law enforcement officer acted with reckless disregard in order to convict, rather than the current standard of “willfulness.”

But there are some areas of agreement: limitations on the use of police chokeholds, standards for no-knock warrants and limits on the sharing of military equipment by the Defense Department with police departments.

“They are determined that they stay steadfast in this bill,” said Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat who counts the Floyd family among her Houston constituents and co-sponsored the House version. “They believe qualified immunity is an important element of this bill. They certainly believe no-knock is an important element, the end of racial profiling. They believe that training and the determination of what is excessive force and what is not is very important.” 

Law enforcement organizations, such as the Fraternal Order of Police, and civil rights groups, like the NAACP, are keeping close tabs on the discussions. NAACP President Derrick Johnson plans to meet with lawmakers Tuesday and has been pushing for an end to qualified immunity.

NAACP spokesperson Jonah Bryson said in a statement that although the group was disappointed that the bill would not be signed by May 25, it “wants to see the right bill, not a rushed bill.”

Reverend Al Sharpton made a renewed push for the legislation during a remembrance rally in Minneapolis Sunday. 

“We don’t know when, but I have a good feeling about this bill being passed that will protect these families from hurting and weeping,” Sharpton told the crowd. 

George Floyd’s sister, Bridgett, also addressed supporters and will meet with Mr. Biden. She will be joined by Floyd’s siblings, Philonise, Terrence, Rodney, and his daughter, Gianna, along with other family members. 

“I will stand and be the voice for him. I will stand and be the change for him. I will stand and continue to be the legacy for him,” Bridgett declared.

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