Congress recently decided police reform makes a better campaign issue than it does a governing issue.
The Republican-controlled Senate and the Democratic-controlled House each came up with a different response to the burst of national demonstrations. However, neither proved willing to so much as hold hearings on the other side’s plan.
As soon as the contrasting plans died, candidates took to the campaign trail to blast the other side’s intransigence.
Both versions would have banned chokeholds, set up a national database of officers fired for cause, required body cameras, penalized racial profiling, required training in de-escalation tactics and required use of deadly force only as a last resort. The Senate version also included $1 billion to help police departments meet the new standards.
The chief differences lay in Senate Republican’s refusal to consider a national database for officers accused but not convicted of misconduct and the curtailment of the obscure legal doctrine of “qualified immunity,” which makes it almost impossible to sue police officers. The Democratic package also barred use of “no knock” warrants, which allow police to break in the door to conduct a search or make an arrest if they’re concerned a suspect inside might prove dangerous. Louisville police shot and killed paramedic Breonna Taylor in her bedroom after serving an apparently mistaken no-knock warrant, igniting a national debate.
Both sides blasted the “process,” which essentially prevented face-to-face negotiations and amendments in either the House or the Senate to come up with a compromise package both sides could support.
“The protection and equitable treatment of all Americans is not a partisan issue,” said Congressman Tom O’Halleran (AZ-01), who represents the White Mountains, Flagstaff and much of northern and eastern Arizona. A former police officer, O’Halleran was a prime co-sponsor of the House-passed package of reforms.
“As a former law enforcement officer, I know how important it is that those who have sworn to protect and serve are held to the absolute highest standards. For the past month, I have hosted calls with communities across our state, as well as sheriffs and police chiefs in my district, to learn more about the lived experiences of different communities in Arizona and to hear their suggestions and concerns. Change is needed.”
However, Rep. Paul Gosar (AZ-04), who represents most of western Arizona including all of Rim Country, called the Democratic package “a piece of crap,” during an appearance this week in Payson.
He said the Democrats espouse “Marxism and Communism” and the bill the Democrats adopted undercut “beat cops who have to deal with a 240-pound man on meth.”
The failure to come up with an acceptable compromise bill on police reform proves that “Congress is broken,” but Gosar insisted he has been in the effort’s forefront to fix the process, with outspoken attacks on House Republican leadership as well as the Democrats.
“The police bill didn’t have a hearing, didn’t have an opportunity to consider amendments. They hate this president more than you can shake a stick at. The president has put conservative people who abide by the Constitution on the bench (as judges). Now they’re (Democrats) frantic,” said Gosar in an appearance.
Democrats control the House and the leadership altered the normal process to speed passage of the bill, which had the effect of preventing amendments and Republican input. The Republicans control the Senate and prepared the package without Democratic input. Democrats then threatened to deny the bill the 60 votes it would need to evade a filibuster. Democrats then voted against a motion to bring the package to the floor for a vote, which would have presumably allowed floor amendments and debate.
The vote returned Congress to the partisan deadlock on key issues that had been briefly interrupted by the rapid, bipartisan vote on the $3 trillion CARES Act in response to the pandemic. However, a second, multi-trillion-dollar pandemic relief package got caught in that same division, without ever coming to a floor vote.
One of the chief sticking points in the police reform deadlock centered on the doctrine of “qualified immunity,” developed by the U.S. Supreme Court in a series of cases dating back to the 1960s. The doctrine provides broad, personal legal immunity from civil lawsuits for police officers. Ironically, it wouldn’t apply in the George Floyd case, since those officers have been charged with crimes.
The doctrine prevents lawsuits against government officials acting in good faith, on the logic that the threat of a lawsuit would deter them from performing their duties. The first version of the doctrine followed the arrest of several clergy members wrongfully arrested on charges of breach of peace for entering a whites-only bus terminal waiting room in 1967. The court expanded the doctrine in subsequent cases so that a 1986 precedent shields officers so long as they’re not “all but plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law,” according to a 1986 case.
As a result, an officer can’t be sued unless he engages in virtually identical behavior as in a previous case in which another officer was held responsible.
The groups Mapping Police Violence reports that of the 1,147 people killed by police in 2017, officers were charged with a crime in 13 cases — about 1%.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor in 2018 wrote that the doctrine “tells officers that they can shoot first and think later and it tells the public that palpably unreasonable conduct will go unpunished.”
Some Senate Republicans had signaled a willingness to consider a modification of qualified immunity. Mike Braun (R-Indiana) had suggested limiting the immunity to situations in which an officers’ actions had been legally authorized or required or if a court found the action did not violate the Constitution or federal laws.
However, the standoff between party leadership in both houses prevented any open discussion of possible paths to compromise.