President Joe Biden urged Congress to pass a police reform bill in the name of George Floyd — murdered under the knee of a convicted former police officer — by the anniversary of his death on May 25. But lawmakers now appear certain to miss that deadline.
In his first joint address to Congress, in April, Biden said there was urgency behind what he said the legislation represented: restoring trust between communities and law enforcement, addressing systemic racism in the criminal justice system and giving meaning to the words of Floyd's daughter, who Biden said told him, "Daddy changed the world."
Police reform advocates and activists who spoke to NBC News said a missed deadline was less important than the end result, as talks are ongoing between members of Congress and the administration. Floyd's brother Philonise Floyd and other relatives of individuals who died from police violence have also been involved.
“A deadline is important for Congress to get something done,” said Arthur Ago, the director of the Criminal Justice Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “What is more important is that there is a robust and sweeping bill that comes out of Congress that changes the way that policing is done in this country so that the changes that people have been advocating for during the last year are achieved.”
Asked about the timing Thursday, press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that the White House would "certainly defer to the expectations of the key negotiators here."
The current bill named for Floyd was approved by the Democratic-led House in March but has yet to receive a vote in the Senate, where at least 10 Republicans are needed for passage because of the chamber's 60-vote filibuster rule.
The bill aims to end certain police techniques, including chokeholds and carotid holds, two forms of potentially deadly force. Such practices would be banned at the federal level, and funding for local and state police agencies would be conditioned on those agencies outlawing them. The bill also seeks to improve police training and invest in community programs designed to improve policing and promote equitable new policies.
The legislation would create a national police misconduct registry to prevent police officers who are fired or pushed out for bad performance from being hired by other agencies and limit how much military-grade equipment is awarded to state and local law enforcement agencies.
The sticking point in negotiations is a legal doctrine called qualified immunity, which makes it difficult to sue individual officers. However, bipartisan, bicameral negotiators — Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif. — have signaled that ending qualified immunity entirely is unlikely. Talks continue about modifications to qualified immunity, including allowing lawsuits against police departments, but it remains unclear if that would imperil liberal support.
Marc Levin, the head of policy at the Council on Criminal Justice, said if a bipartisan bill passes, it could send a signal to a number of states and localities to follow suit. He compared its potential impact to the 1994 crime bill that Biden helped write, which pressured states to increase penalties on crimes by providing $12.5 billion in grants to expand their prison capacity.
"States went above and beyond what the 1994 crime bill, I think very unwisely, required as a condition of receiving federal funds to build more prisons," Levin said, "so these federal laws — particularly when there's money — affect the broader environment in which state and local decisions are made."
He added, “I do think this will have a similar impact as the 1994 crime bill in terms of the breadth and scope of the impact but hopefully a more positive one, obviously, in terms of the trajectory of justice.”
Some activists think the bill still does not go far enough, most notably because it is focused on federal law enforcement and only pressures local governments. The vast majority of the roughly 18,000 police departments in the U.S. are controlled at the local level, experts note, which is where organizers are more focused.
Maritza Perez, director of the Office of National Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, said her organization does not support the current bill because it disagrees with some of the language around drug raids and with provisions that direct more funds to police departments rather than social services.
Perez said it's possible for stronger language to be adopted given the delay. Her group would like to see a ban on quick-knock raids and on transferring military surplus equipment to police departments, plus funds shifted from police training to social services like education and housing. Still, she said her group's primary focus will remain grassroots organizing around reform.
"You're going to impact the budget at the local level more so than you can at the federal level," she said.
New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Baltimore and a dozen other cities have all committed to reducing police budgets or spending after widespread racial justice protests.
Last June, Colorado became the first — and only — state to strip police of qualified immunity.
Maurice Mitchell, a lead organizer with the Movement for Black Lives, a network of 150 Black-led organizations, agreed that work at the federal level was just one piece of the puzzle, adding that the proposed "reforms would not create the conditions where George Floyd would not have died."
"We want substance," Mitchell, who is also the national director of the Working Families Party, said. "We want real justice."
Earlier this month, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed one of the nation’s most ambitious packages of police accountability legislation, which include bans on police use of chokeholds, neck restraints and no-knock warrants such as the one that led to Breonna Taylor's killing in Louisville, Kentucky, in March 2020.
In April, the Maryland Legislature voted to override Republican Gov. Larry Hogan's vetoes of several pieces of police reform legislation.
Illinois passed a bill this past February that made a significant overhaul of its criminal justice system, which not only instituted major police reforms but also made the state the first in the nation to completely abolish cash bail.
“We're going to continue to do our job and make sure that all of the folks who have passed, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, that their memories aren't forgotten ... and that our standards aren’t diluted based on what we think we could get politically versus what we know we deserve,” Mitchell said.