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Despite broad swaths of Americans protesting in the streets, attempts to pass a police overhaul bill stalled in Congress last week. Both the GOP and Democrats introduced police reform bills, but neither survived the partisan divide, making it unlikely that Congress will take any action toward police reform before the November elections.

Given that an overwhelming majority of Americans on both sides of the aisle support major reforms to policing, it may seem surprising that Congress couldn’t find enough common ground enough to pass a bill. After all, there were some commonalities in the GOP and Democratic bills, including measures to restrict the use of chokeholds, increase transparency through the use of a national database of use-of-force incidents, and strengthen the required use of body cameras.

The differences between the bills lay in the strength of the measures proposed (offering incentives versus imposing federal mandates) and, most significantly, the attempts by Democrats to peel back qualified immunity.

Qualified immunity, which is often cited by activists and civil rights groups as key to the lack of accountability in police departments, prevents police officers from being sued by victims and their families. This is important because civil suits are often the only recourse for victims of police violence, as prosecutors are resistant to pursuing criminal charges against police officers. The result is the shocking abuse of police power that has become all too common in the United States.

Currently, prosecutors must prove that an officer “willfully” violated an individual’s constitutional rights, while the Democratic bill lowers that standard to actions undertaken with “reckless disregard” for the individual’s rights. Lowering this standard would provide strong incentives for municipalities to restructure the police department toward de-escalation to prevent such abuses of power, as they are otherwise responsible for paying out damages to victims.

Analysis

In the wake of the protests, both Republicans and Democrats were quick to lament the death of George Floyd and call for police reform. So what explains the inability to come together to pass a bill pushing police reform?

One cannot deny the influence of police lobbying groups: the United Police Officers Association Super PAC has spent more than $7 million in the past two years alone. Yet, those donations are handed out on both sides of the aisle.

Another reason for the stagnation is partisan branding, with Republicans seeking to brand themselves as siding with ‘Law and Order’ and Democrats siding with ‘Racial Justice.’ And while Democrats shot down the GOP bill for being “inadequate,” Republicans claimed the Democratic bill is too punitive toward law enforcement.

Yet, despite calls among many protesters and some progressives to defund or abolish the existing police system, the Democratic bill proposes neither, focusing instead on improving accountability among police officers and their departments. Nonetheless, Trump pushed the narrative that Democrats are irredeemably extreme, stating in a tweet “Radical Left Democrats want to Defund and Abandon our Police.”

Other Republicans and Democrats are also quick to reinforce and inflame these battle lines. Such cynical jabs may gain some points among the electorate, but they also reinforce the misconceptions that further polarize the country and prevent compromise and reconciliation. In truth, politicians generally care about racial justice as well as law and order. Pitting the brands in staunch opposition helps no one.

Still, staunchly playing to one’s base can be a fruitful strategy in an election year. Despite protests on his doorstep, Trump shrugged off the lack of progress. “If nothing happens with it, it’s one of those things,” Trump said. “We have different philosophies.”

Resistance Resources:

The US Human Rights Network is a national network of organizations and individuals working to strengthen a human rights movement and culture within the United States led by the people most directly impacted by human rights violations. They work to secure dignity and justice for all.

The Law Enforcement Action Partnership’s mission is to unite and mobilize the voice of law enforcement in support of drug policy and criminal justice reforms that will make communities safer by focusing law enforcement resources on the greatest threats to public safety, promoting alternatives to arrest and incarceration, addressing the root causes of crime, and working toward healing police-community relations.

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