Police reform negotiators are no longer considering changes to a controversial legal doctrine known as “qualified immunity,” according to three sources familiar with the matter.
Qualified immunity, which shields police officers from civil liability for misdeeds, has remained one of the main points of contention in the police reform negotiations. It being taken off the table could make the final product tough to sell to progressives, who want to see it scrapped altogether and have been outspoken about their demands to change the doctrine. But Republicans have been firm that they have no interest in getting rid of qualified immunity.
And other outstanding issues still remain. The lead negotiators — Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) — have missed several self-imposed deadlines but are continuing discussions.
Before leaving for recess, Scott hinted the group was working on a “slimmed down version” of their bill, though both he and Booker declined to comment on what could be left out. Even if qualified immunity is removed, there’s no guarantee that negotiators can come to a final deal.
A Republican source with direct knowledge of the talks emphasized that there’s no final agreement yet on qualified immunity.
The negotiators have been going back and forth on their proposals for months without a major breakthrough. The family of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer last year, visited lawmakers on Capitol Hill earlier this month in an effort to break the logjam, though senators left for their monthlong recess without a deal in hand.
Civil rights groups including the ACLU blanched at an earlier compromise on qualified immunity floated by Democrats that would have shifted legal liability onto police departments rather than individual officers. The proposal would have mirrored a similar proposal from Scott, but the groups saw it as a codification of the doctrine, rather than the total abolition they wanted.
It is unclear if a police reform proposal without changes to qualified immunity could pass the House, where progressive Democrats like Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), a former Black Lives Matter activist, have called the removal of qualified immunity a redline.
“We compromise, we die,” Bush has said.
But some Democrats, including House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) have suggested that they’d be open to police reform legislation that didn’t get rid of qualified immunity. He, along with other Democrats, have argued that some progress on negotiations is better than nothing. But progressives make up a substantial voting bloc of the House, where Democrats can only lose three votes absent Republican support.
While negotiators missed another summer deadline, Booker has stressed that time limits are not useful for achieving a deal. Caroline Anderegg, a Scott spokesperson, said in a statement that “the senator will stay at the negotiating table as long as progress is being made” and that negotiators “will continue to work through August toward finding an agreement.”
President Joe Biden earlier this year called on Congress to reach an agreement on police reform by the anniversary of Floyd’s death, May 25. And the House in March passed a sweeping police reform bill named after Floyd, but the legislation has no chance of getting the 10 GOP votes needed to overcome a filibuster.
Republicans objected to the bill’s provisions ending qualified immunity, lowering the threshold for prosecuting officers and conditioning police funding on reforms, among other provisions. Scott also introduced his own police reform bill last year, but Democrats blocked it on the Senate floor, arguing the legislation did not go far enough.