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Unusual Optimism In Washington About Bipartisan Work On Policing Reform

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There is an unusual amount of optimism in Washington about bipartisan work on policing legislation. President Biden is urging lawmakers to pass a bill named for George Floyd by the first anniversary of Floyd's murder on May 25. That's less than three weeks away. NPR political reporter Juana Summers is here with an update on where these talks stand. Hey, Juana.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Hey there.

SHAPIRO: The guilty verdict in the murder of George Floyd has injected new momentum into these efforts, especially around the bill named after him. Tell us, first of all, what the bill would do.

SUMMERS: So the bill would bar the use of chokeholds and banned most no-knock warrants. It would also create a national database to track police misconduct. It contains several provisions aimed at making it easier to hold officers accountable for misconduct in civil and criminal court, including changing qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that shields officers from lawsuits by lowering the bar to sue officers for alleged civil rights violations.

Now, right now, there are bipartisan negotiations with lawmakers, including Congresswoman Karen Bass of California, who is the lead sponsor of that bill in the House, and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is leading Republican efforts. He had previously introduced his own bill. This week, he told CBS there had been progress working out many of the differences.

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TIM SCOTT: We have literally been able to bring these two bills very close together. And if we remember the goal isn't for Republicans or Democrats to win, but for communities to feel safer and our officers to feel respected - if we can accomplish those two major goals, the rest will be history.

SHAPIRO: The if - that's a big if. So, Juana, what are the main sticking points right now?

SUMMERS: Well, the biggest is qualified immunity. Critics say it allows officers to use excessive force without accountability and that it prevents victims from getting justice. Supporters, though, say it allows law enforcement officers to make split-second decisions without having to weigh whether they could be held civilly responsible for the results.

Now, Tim Scott has proposed a compromise that civil suits could be brought against entire police departments instead of individuals. He says that would help improve police culture and that he's found some Democratic support. But that also risks losing progressives, like Missouri Congresswoman Cori Bush, who has already said she would not support a bill that included a compromise on that issue. One other related sticking point has been over whether to change the federal code to make criminal prosecution of individual officers easier.

SHAPIRO: What else are you hearing from some of the progressives who have been at the forefront of this debate over the past year?

SUMMERS: Mmm hmm. Earlier today, I talked with Maurice Mitchell of the Movement for Black Lives. Now, the Movement does not support the Floyd bill. Mitchell told me, and I'm quoting here, that "nobody should be running any victory laps if it passes."

MAURICE MITCHELL: If we want to be a different society, then we need to make transformative changes. We can't just nibble around the edges. I think the Justice in Policing Act provides some marginal, modest reforms that will not ultimately shift the paradigm. We need to shift the paradigm.

SUMMERS: Mitchell is also the national director of the Working Families Party, and he says that the movement wants to see political leaders enact a different piece of legislation, the BREATHE Act, which would completely overhaul the nation's criminal justice system and shift funding towards communities. And that kind of mindset is something we hear from some progressives on Capitol Hill, including Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

And broadly speaking, I do think that all of this highlights the fundamental difference in how most Democrats and Republicans think about issues at the intersection of race and policing. Any moves to make the kind of sweeping, broad changes that are in the BREATHE act that Mitchell and some progressives support would almost certainly repel some Republicans and perhaps even some Democrats, and that would make it really difficult to get a bill passed now.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Juana Summers. Thanks a lot.

SUMMERS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.