A group of progressive politicians is insisting that any new police reform legislation must end qualified immunity for law enforcement. The end of qualified immunity is baked into the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which passed the House in March, but Republicans in the Senate want that provision removed.
On Thursday, 10 House Democrats – led by Representatives Ayanna Pressley and Cori Bush – signed a letter opposing any bipartisan agreement that keeps qualified immunity intact.
“As negotiations continue, know this: there can be no true justice in America if we cannot save lives, just like there can be no true accountability in America if we do not eliminate qualified immunity,” the letter said. “Maintaining and strengthening the provision that would eliminate qualified immunity once and for all, would put us on a path towards true accountability and help end the systemic and systematic harm that has long been perpetuated by American policing.”
Qualified immunity – which protects government officials from civil lawsuits as long as they don’t violate ‘a clearly established right’ – is designed to allow police officers to perform their duties without hesitation. But critics say it has led to violence and makes it harder to hold cops accountable.
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn has suggested that qualified immunity is on the chopping block as Democrats try to amend the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act to make it more palatable for Senate Republicans. Sen. Tim Scott, the GOP lead in the reform negotiation, has indicated that qualified immunity must stay in place to avoid frivolous lawsuits.
President Biden has set a May 25th deadline for negotiations – the one year anniversary of Floyd’s death – but he’s recently backed off it.
“The most important thing is that we have a bill that hits the President’s desk, not the date that it does,” said Rep. Karen Bass, a California Democrat.
The conversation on police reform takes place as the nation grapples with shocking revelations concerning the death of Ronald Greene, a Louisiana man who was tased, dragged and kicked before dying in police custody in 2019. Officers taunted Greene and did not give him medical attention as he struggled for his life. Greene’s family was initially told that he died in a car crash following a high speed chase.
The letter from progressive lawmakers, doesn’t explicitly mention Greene, but states, “police violence, as a weapon of structural racism, continues to have devastating and deadly consequences for Black and brown lives across our country.” The signatories, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar, stop short of saying they’ll vote against any bill that doesn’t end qualified immunity.
Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to Senators that was signed by 89 civil rights organizations calling for the end to qualified immunity:
Ending qualified immunity would ensure government accountability, encourage courts to play their historic role of redressing abuse of power, remedy and deter wrongdoing by those sworn to uphold the law, help victims obtain justice, and create an incentive for governments to properly train, equip, and staff their departments.