U.S. House Democrats took the first step Wednesday toward passing police reform legislation in response to the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man, while in police custody.
Since Floyd's death, protesters have taken to the streets in historic numbers across the United States, many of them calling for a dramatic policy solution to partially address the problem of racial discrimination – "defund the police."
While that call to shift funding from local law enforcement to social services is not covered in this Congressional legislation, the measure includes many other ambitious proposals that Democrats say would shift policing in the United States from a "warrior" model to that of a public guardian.
Here's a look at the issues for debate and their chances of becoming law:
Can the U.S. Congress "defund the police?" How much can the U.S. Congress do to address this issue?
Funding at the federal level (that is money appropriated by the U.S. Congress) is just one part of the funding local police departments around the United States receive. Most of their funding is derived from state and local sources so even if the political will was there, Congress could not act to completely defund a police force.
Democrats have largely tamped down calls to completely defund police departments, advocating instead for some shifting in funding priorities to better support social services.
"I think it can be used as a distraction and that's my concern," said Rep. Karen Bass, a California Democrat who is chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, speaking Monday about calls to defund the police. "I think the intent behind it is something that I support — the idea that communities need investments."
What is in U.S. House Democrats' legislation?
"This is Congress's most comprehensive effort in decades to substantially address police misconduct by taking on issues, critical issues affecting black and brown communities," Vanita Gupta, a former Obama administration principal deputy assistant attorney general on civil rights, told lawmakers Wednesday.
As described by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, the New York Democrat, on Wednesday, the legislation would create local policing task forces and encourage best-practice strategies such as police body cameras and improved training for law enforcement.
"The bill would make it easier for the federal government to successfully prosecute police misconduct cases, it would ban chokeholds, end racial and religious profiling, encourage prosecutions independent from local police, and eliminate the dubious court-made doctrine of qualified immunity for law enforcement," Nadler said.
Putting an end to qualified immunity – a legal principle that allows law enforcement protection from civil claims unless they have violated clearly established laws or constitutional rights – will likely be the most significant sticking point in negotiations between Democrats and Republicans.
What happens next with the legislation?
House Democrats are set to hold a markup – the process that prepares the text of a bill for a final vote – next week. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland announced the chamber would come back into session the weeks of June 22 and June 29 in the expectation of holding a full floor vote on the legislation some time during those weeks.
Any legislation passed in the Democratic-majority House would then head to consideration in the Republican-majority U.S. Senate. But lawmakers are running out of time to tackle the proposal. Senate lawmakers are scheduled to be back in their home states for two weeks in July and then for almost the entire month of August and the beginning of September. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said he is concerned Democrats could lose momentum on achieving results.
"We need this whole bill put on the floor and debated, the whole justice in policing act," Schumer, a New Yorker, told reporters Tuesday. "To do one piece would be a dereliction of our duty and second, I am really worried. Remember when there was a lot of gun violence and (Senate Majority Leader Mitch) McConnell said, 'Oh our caucus is going to discuss it. We're going to deal with it, etc', and then they never did. I'm worried the same thing would happen here."
How are Congressional Republicans responding?
Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina – the only African American Republican in the U.S. Senate – is heading the effort to put together a proposal that can win the approval of President Donald Trump.
Announcing Scott's effort, McConnell of Kentucky said Tuesday, "We're still wrestling with America's original sin. We try to get better, but every now and then it's perfectly clear, we're a long way from the finish line. And I think the best way for the Senate Republicans to go forward on this is to listen to one of our own, he's had these experiences, he's had them since he's been in the United States Senate."
While there is not yet any formal text for the Republican proposals, lawmakers have signaled they would seek similar goals – ending police chokeholds, improving training – through different means than Democrats. Speaking at the House Judiciary hearing on policing reform Wednesday, Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana summarized Republican goals for addressing the problem.
"From where we sit right now, we believe the most actionable reforms must focus around three core concepts – transparency, training and termination of those rare bad apples in law enforcement who violate the law and the legitimacy that upholds the character of our legal system," Johnson said.
But one significant sticking point could be the issue of qualified immunity. At a Tuesday briefing, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany specifically said ending qualified immunity for police was "a nonstarter."
The key question is whether Trump – who has been tweeting over the course of the protests about the need for law and order – will be willing to sign any legislation that could potentially alienate his base of voters in an election year.
Historically, the U.S. Congress rarely passes ambitious legislation in the months leading up to an election. But American public opinion has shifted so rapidly on this issue, it appears to be in lawmakers' best interests to address at least some of the problems. According to Civiqis, an online research polling firm, American public support for the Black Lives Matter movement has increased as much in the last two weeks as it had in the past two years.