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Bipartisan police reform has been a struggle in the Senate. Here’s the story
If Your Time is short
In June 2020 Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., proposed a police reform bill. Democrats blocked Scott’s bill.
Democrats wrote their own bill in June 2020. It partially overlapped with Scott’s proposal, but it was more sweeping. It passed the House but didn’t receive a vote in the Senate.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers including Scott are currently negotiating a police reform bill.
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who has called on lawmakers to work together to achieve common ground, said that he proposed a police reform proposal last year, but Democrats thwarted his efforts.
"In 2015, after the shooting of Walter Scott, I wrote a bill to fund body cameras. Last year, after the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, I built an even bigger police reform proposal," Scott said. "But my Democratic colleagues blocked it. I extended an olive branch. I offered them amendments. But Democrats used the filibuster to block the debate from even happening."
Scott said negotiations with Democrats continue on police reform.
"My friends across the aisle all seem to want the issue more than they wanted a solution," Scott said. "But I’m still working. I’m hopeful that this will be different."
Scott made the comments during his GOP response to President Joe Biden’s address to a joint session of Congress.
Scott did propose a police reform bill in June 2020, but Democrats, who preferred their own version, blocked it. Each side accused the other of failing to negotiate in good faith, and neither party got its measure passed into law.
Following the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, Senate Republicans and House Democrats wrote separate proposals for police reform.
Scott, the lone Black Republican in the Senate, was tasked with coming up with a police reform plan that would be acceptable to Republicans. Scott unveiled the Justice Act on June 17 and drew dozens of GOP cosponsors.
"I’ve been waiting for this for a long time. I’m sad that it takes another death to get here," Scott told NBC’s "Today."
House Democrats unveiled the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act on June 8 and drew widespread support among their party.
Scott’s Senate bill and the House Democrats’ bill had some similarities, such as making lynching a federal hate crime, increased data collection and funding for body cameras. Scott’s bill called for incentives, grants and study, while the Democrats’ version had more mandates. The proposals also had other key differences:
Qualified immunity: Democrats sought to limit qualified immunity to make it easier for victims to sue police officers, while Scott’s bill didn’t change the practice.
Chokeholds: Both aimed to curtail the use of chokeholds, but Scott’s bill had a more narrow definition of chokeholds than the Democrats’ bill. Both cut off funding to agencies as an incentive to create chokehold policies.
No-knock warrants: The Democrats’ bill banned the use of federal no-knock warrants in drug cases and prohibited state and local agencies from receiving funds if they didn’t have a law prohibiting no-knock warrants in drug cases. Scott’s bill called for police agencies to report their use of no-knock warrants to the attorney general.
Military equipment: The Democrats’ bill banned the transfer of surplus military weapons to police departments such as firearms, bayonets and grenades. The Senate version did not have that provision.
President Donald Trump threatened to veto the Democrats’ bill if it reached his desk.
Civil rights groups like the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund objected to Scott's bill and said it lacked a "strong accountability framework for police officers." The group said it steered more funding to police agencies rather than reimagining public safety and routing money to social services.
The ACLU opposed Scott’s bill and said it failed to address systemic issues such as militarization of police departments and qualified immunity. The ACLU did not endorse or oppose the House Democrats’ police reform bill and called on lawmakers to go further on several provisions.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., called for creating a bipartisan group to reach a deal, but Republicans sought a vote.
Scott’s bill needed 60 votes to move forward, but it fell short on June 24, when Senate Democrats blocked the bill on a 55-45 vote. Two Democrats, Doug Jones of Alabama and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, along with independent Angus King of Maine, joined Republicans in voting to move the bill forward.
King said the GOP proposal didn’t go far enough to address racial injustice, but "my concern was that voting against it will end the discussion of this subject in the Senate for the foreseeable future."
Democrats dismissed the GOP bill as a "political game" that didn’t address the concerns of equal justice for Black Americans.
"And we're not going to play that game. And we're not going to be played," then-Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., told reporters.
After the bill died, Scott said in a floor speech that he was open to multiple Democrats’ amendments on the bill, such as collecting data on all uses of force and the definition of chokeholds.
"We offered them opportunities, at least 20 I offered, to change it," Scott said. "Their answer to me? You can't offer 20 amendments. I said why not? Because Mitch McConnell won't give 20 amendments. I spoke to Mitch McConnell. He said you can have 20 amendments. I told them that."
Steven S. Smith, a political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, said the Democrats’ vote was an example of minority obstruction.
The context is that the House had crafted their own version that they preferred.
"Democrats wanted a sign that Republicans would move in their direction on the issue and found the Scott measure to be an inadequate alternative," Smith said. "Both sides could have gone public with half-way measures. Neither side did so."
The Democrats’ legislation passed the House June 25, a day after Scott’s Senate version hit a wall. But the House version didn’t reach a vote in the Senate. Democrats reintroduced the legislation this year, and it passed the House in March but has yet to reach a vote in the Senate.
Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s recent conviction for manslaughter and murder led to renewed calls by politicians to pass police reform.
Scott has been trying to negotiate a compromise. The day after Scott’s speech, he was scheduled to meet with a bipartisan group of lawmakers to continue negotiations on the bill. Advocates for Floyd and others who died at the hands of police officers also met with lawmakers from both parties.
One key sticking point for Republicans has been Democrats’ efforts to limit qualified immunity as a defense in civil lawsuits against police officers. Scott has called on making it easier for victims to sue police departments rather than individual officers.
In 2020, Scott said Democrats’ efforts on qualified immunity was a "poison pill."
"When you make it all about the individual officer, you run good cops out, you make it far more difficult to get anything accomplished, but if the actual conversation is around restitution and recourse, you can change the behavior of all officers, not simply one," he told Vox in July 2020.
Scott says Democrats blocked his efforts at police reform.
Scott proposed a bill in June 2020, but Democrats blocked it from moving forward. Scott omits the reason that Senate Democrats blocked the measure: They preferred the House version of a police reform bill Democrats put forward the same month.
While both parties faced pressure to adopt police reform, partisan bickering and maneuvers led to nothing passing, and efforts stalled weeks later. Bipartisan negotiations are now underway, but it remains to be seen whether they will reach a compromise.
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RELATED: Fact-checking Sen. Tim Scott's GOP response to President Joe Biden
New York Times, Republican Rebuttal to Biden’s Speech: Tim Scott’s Full Transcript, April 29, 2021
Congress.gov, S.3985 - JUSTICE Act, Introduced June 17, 2020
Congress.gov, H.R.7120 - George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020, June 8, 2020
Congress.gov, H.R.1280 - George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021, Feb. 24, 2021
USA Today, GOP police bill would incentivize cities to stop using chokeholds but wouldn't ban them, June 17, 2020
Politico, Dems sink GOP police bill, leaving Senate deadlocked as country reckons with racism, June 24, 2020
PolitiFact, Biden pauses promise to form police oversight commission, April 13, 2021
Congress.gov, H.R.1280 - George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021, Passed the House March 3, 2021
Reuters, Bipartisan group of senators presses forward on U.S. policing reform talks, April 21, 2021
CNN, Sen. Tim Scott unveils draft of GOP police reform plan, June 9, 2020
AP, Senate GOP to propose policing changes in 'Justice Act' June 17, 2020
Post and Courier, SC Sen. Tim Scott unveils police reform bill, asks Democrats to cooperate, June 18, 2020
NPR, Senate Democrats Block GOP Police Reform Bill, June 24, 2020
The Hill, Police reform hits impasse in Senate, June 24, 2021
AP, After Floyd, Congress ready to plunge into policing laws, April 22, 2021
Vox, Sen. Tim Scott on race, police reform, and why ending qualified immunity is a nonstarter for the GOP,July 7, 2021
CNBC, Bipartisan group to hold police reform talks as George Floyd Act stalls in Senate, April 29, 2021
Sen. Angus King, King Statement After Voting to Proceed to Debate on Police Reform Legislation, June 24, 2020
New York Times, Here Are the Differences Between the Senate and House Bills to Overhaul Policing, June 17, 202o
AP, A side-by-side look at police reform bills in Congress, June 23, 2020
The Hill, Key differences in the House, Senate police reform bills, June 17, 2021
NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Re: Vote NO on the Motion to Proceed - S. 3985 the JUSTICE Act, June 22, 2020
ACLU, Statement on Justice Act, June 24, 2020
ACLU, Letter on George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, June 23, 2020
CBS, Bipartisan group of lawmakers meeting to discuss police reform, April 29, 2021
Sen. Tim Scott, ICYMI: Sen. Scott Discusses JUSTICE Act, Police Reform Efforts on TODAY Show, June 11, 2020
Email interview, Sarah Binder, George Washington University political scientist, April 29, 2021
Email interview, Steven S. Smith, Washington University in St Louis political scientist, April 29, 2021
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Bipartisan police reform has been a struggle in the Senate. Here’s the story
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