WASHINGTON — Amidst a global pandemic, on the last weekend in May, crowds of every color united in anguish and in revolution, condemning the killing of George Floyd.
As protesters took to the streets, politicians took to their pens.
On June 8, 2020 Representative Karen Bass (D-Ca.) introduced the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in Congress. After just 17 days, the bill passed the House (236-181), yet the bill failed to pass a Senate procedural vote to advance.
On February 24, 2021, Rep. Bass reintroduced the bill, where it was passed in the House of Representatives (220-212) on March 3. It has not been moved to the Senate floor.
However, following the guilty verdict of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, came a renewed push for the passage of the bill in Floyd's namesake, and an endorsement from the highest office.
"There's meaningful police reform legislation in George Floyd's name, but it shouldn't take a year to get it done," President Biden tweeted hours after the Chauvin trial verdict. "I assured the Floyd family that we're going to continue to fight for the passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act so I can sign it into law right away."
Vice President Harris made similar remarks in a White House address following Derek Chauvin's conviction.
"Last summer together with Senator Cory Booker and Representative Karen Bass, I introduced the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act," Harris said. "This bill would hold law enforcement accountable and help build trust between law enforcement and our communities. This bill is part of George Floyd's legacy."
So let's Verify: What is the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act?
Our Verify researchers looked at the bill itself and spoke with two professors at Howard University: Michael Fauntroy, associate professor of political science; and Justin Hansford, professor of law and director of the Thurgood Marshall Rights Center.
The bill is broken into portions that touch on the way police cases are handled in court, racial profiling, sexual misconduct and more.
One of the biggest proposals in the bill is establishing a "National Police Misconduct Registry," managed by the U.S. Attorney General.
Data that must be reported to the registry include:
- Each complaint against a law enforcement officer (aggregated by whether the complaints were found to be credible, resulted in disciplinary action, pending review, exonerated or not credible)
- Discipline records
- Termination records, including the reason for termination
- Records of certification
- Records of lawsuits and any settlements
- Instances where the officer resigns or retires while under an 'active investigation related to the use of force'
The bill would require all local, state and federal law enforcement to submit reports to the registry, and for that registry to remain open to the public.
"In establishing the Registry required under subsection (a), the Attorney General shall make the Registry available to the public on an internet website of the Attorney General in a manner that allows members of the public to search for an individual law enforcement officer’s records of misconduct, as described in subsection (b), involving a use of force or racial profiling," the bill reads.
"It's hard to think about what the argument is against just simply keeping track of what's happening," Justin Hansford said.
There is currently no national police misconduct registry like the one being proposed.
"What's currently in place is mayhem," Hansford said. "It's basically 18,000 police departments and they feel like they have their own fiefdom. Each police department feels like its own arbiter as to whether or not to keep data."
"There's nothing in place now," Michael Fauntroy said. "There are circumstances in which police engage in significant misconduct, and they may get a slap on the wrist, they may get something put in their files, but that's not available necessarily for public inspection. And it's certainly not the kind of thing that police officers, police departments, for example, are issuing press releases on."
Both Fauntroy and Hansford said a key provision in the bill is dissolving something called "qualified immunity," which protects officers from being held personally liable in an incident. Under this bill, qualified immunity could not be used as a defense for law enforcement in a private civil action.
RELATED: VERIFY: Did DC 'Defund the Police?'
"If you are surgeon and you commit malpractice, you can lose your job and be held liable for that. If you are a lawyer who violates not just legal doctrine but professional standard, you can be held liable for that. Well right now, unless there's some extreme cases, police officers can't, and that's because of qualifies immunity," Fauntroy said.
He continued: "So if you take away qualified immunity, police are no longer literally above the law or outside the reach of the law. That's why this is such a really big deal if it actually comes through. It has the potential to be a landmark change in the way police officers behave in the United States."
Hansford agrees that eliminating qualified immunity is one of the bill's most impactful proposals.
"There was no law passed that made it mandatory that you have that, it was something that was created by judges over time as they interpreted the law," Hansford said. "And by passing a law for the first time weighing in on this question, and saying that we're not going to allow this standard to continue, essentially closes the door on it."
Hansford explains that getting rid of qualified immunity essentially puts both law enforcement and the public on equal footing in court.
Other parts of the proposal are aimed at prohibiting racial profiling during things like traffic stops, frisks and other types of searches.
Here's how the bill defines racial profiling:
"...the practice of a law enforcement agent or agency relying, to any degree, on actual or perceived race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation in selecting which individual to subject to routine or spontaneous investigatory activities or in deciding upon the scope and substance of law enforcement activity following the initial investigatory procedure, except when there is trustworthy information, relevant to the locality and timeframe, that links a person with a particular characteristic described in this paragraph to an identified criminal incident or scheme."
Besides racial profiling, the bill also outlaws the use of no-knock warrants in drug cases. It also de-incentivizes law enforcement agencies from using chokeholds and carotid holds on the job, by disqualifying them from federal grant money.
The bill highly regulates the use of force by federal law enforcement officers and requires them to wear and activate their body cameras except in narrow circumstances when stopping to activate it would be a threat to his/her life.
What does the opposition say about the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act?
When the bill was debated in the House of Representatives after being reintroduced in the 117th Congress, Republican delegates zeroed in on the cost of the proposal and how it could hinder law enforcement from doing their jobs.
"CBO estimates that this unfunded mandate placed on state and local law enforcement will cost several hundred million dollars," Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) said on March 3, 2021. "The consequences of H.R. 1280 are clear; it would drain resources away from important public safety activities. Instead, law enforcement officers will have to spend their time reporting their data to Washington, D.C. from behind their desk. Make no mistake, this bill defunds the police."
He wasn't the only one on defense. Rep. Burgess Owens (R-UT) said that this legislation "paints a target on the back of every police officer in America."
Rep. Kat Cammack (R-FL) brought her husband's SWAT medic vest on the House floor as a symbol of what first responders see on a daily basis to argue against the bill.
"What this bill ultimately does is defund the police," Cammack said. "You want a better trained, more responsive police force in your home town? Fully fund the police. You say this is a reform bill, and I say that's BS."
The bill was reintroduced by House Rep. Pete Stauber on March 22, 2021.
Meanwhile, police reform advocates have created their own take on a future bill, called the BREATHE Act.
Following Chauvin's verdict Black Lives Matter tweeted:
So, what happens now?
At this point, the bill hasn't been assigned to a Senate committee yet.
"I have no confidence that this is going to pass through the Senate," Fauntroy said. "Remember there's something called a filibuster."
The bill won't pass unless it gets 60 votes.
"And there are not 10 republicans who are prepared to support this," Fauntroy said. "They might support pieces of it, but many of them represent states that will view this as an attack on police."
So at this point, there's no doubt whether or not President Biden would sign the bill into law, but whether the bill will make it off the Senate floor remains in question.
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