WASHINGTON — When lawmakers negotiating police reform released a statement last week saying they had agreed on a framework and would keep talking, the words painted a rosy picture of discussions that in reality are teetering on collapse, according to those involved.
Outside special interest groups are playing a critical role in the negotiation, as they often do on Capitol Hill, but this time the divide is pitting law enforcement representatives against one another and threatening any chance of success.
Law enforcement are represented by different groups — the sheriffs, who cover most rural areas, have their organization, and urban police are divided, the unionized officers represented by one organization and police chiefs by another. And instead of unifying, the negotiations over reforms have left the police and the sheriffs feuding.
Despite claims of progress, after more than three months the process is wearing on members and some are questioning whether the other side wants a deal or if political forces are too much to overcome. NBC News interviewed with more than half a dozen people from both parties, law enforcement and civil rights organizations, most who spoke on the condition of anonymity in reporting this article.
The politics are becoming increasingly complex as Republicans are trying to turn urban crime rates into attacks on Democrats, who they paint as supporters of defunding the police and are warning suburban voters that crime could come to their doorstep if liberals remain in control of government. The police bill being negotiated in Congress wouldn't defund the police, but it is infused into the politics of passage.
Lead Republican negotiator, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, publicly outlined five issues that would be the center of the discussions, but two have become sticking points: Section 242, the criminal conviction standard of police officers, and qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that limits lawsuits against cops.
Those provisions are at the heart of Democrats’ demands for police accountability.
Early in the negotiations in March, Scott publicly floated a compromise on qualified immunity. Instead of allowing lawsuits against police officers, victims or their families could sue the department or municipality.
Democrats were not all convinced. While victims of police malfeasance could win recourse, individual police officers could still be protected from liability for their actions.
Then Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., the highest-ranking Black member in the House and a long-time civil rights activist, said qualified immunity could be set aside for another day, a signal to negotiators led by Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., to consider the compromise.
Progressive Democrats were furious.
Two weeks later, on May 20, negotiators convened a meeting with the Fraternal Order of Police, a powerful police union with 350,000 members, and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Scott offered Booker a challenge: “If you can get police groups on board with a proposal, then I will not stand in the way,” a source familiar with the discussion said. It was considered a near impossible task. Scott’s office declined to comment when asked about the statement.
But Booker was able to gain the police groups' buy-in, two congressional sources familiar with the negotiations said, signing off on a proposal similar to the one Scott had made.
Section 242, the criminal standard for charging police, would be left untouched, but Booker would add four new crimes that police officers could be charged with: sexual assault, theft, obstruction of justice and some aspects of excessive use of force, multiple sources told NBC News.
Staff and lawmakers were surprised that the police chiefs group and the officers union both backed it, sources involved with the negotiations said. As part of the compromise, the law enforcement groups also secured additional suicide prevention support and resources for mental distress calls, the difficult and fraught cases that frequently occupy law enforcement.
While the most hard-line activists on the left were unsatisfied, civil rights groups deemed the compromise a good first step even if they wanted more accountability for police. NAACP President Derrick Johnson said in a statement to NBC News that he felt “encouraged” by the status of the negotiations.
In early June, Booker presented the agreement to Scott, but instead of heralding a deal, it unlocked a bitter public fight between police groups that continues to threaten to blow up the negotiations.
That status of the talks are so dire that civil rights groups, who have only projected signs of encouragement, are speaking out.
“Many in law enforcement agree that meaningful change is necessary, but unfortunately, a few are committed to standing in the way with a goal of obstructing the process,” Johnson said in a new statement Monday.
Scott rejected the agreement and demanded that any deal receive the support of the National Sheriffs' Association, the largest sheriffs group, two sources familiar with the negotiations said. South Carolina is a mostly rural state with nearly four dozen county sheriffs that have a significant amount of political clout. Scott is up for re-election next year.
“I have to talk to the sheriffs," fellow South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham told reporters after the meeting, a public acknowledgement about the importance of their support.
During a meeting between lawmakers and the sheriffs' association on June 14, Graham was highly critical of the Booker proposal and police unions on behalf of the sheriffs, two sources said.
“Booker went out and tried to strike a deal without consulting the sheriffs and the Republican negotiators and put the negotiations in a worse place,” one source said.
The sheriffs' association immediately rejected the compromise. Sheriffs, who are usually elected or appointed, were furious at the prospect of their offices being held responsible for misbehaving individual officers.
The sheriffs launched an opposition campaign, trying to mobilize their members across the country to voice opposition. The National Association of Police Organizations, a coalition of law enforcement unions, joined in. The group sent a memo to its members titled, “Urgent. Action Needed. Senator Booker Proposes Horrible Police Reform Bill.”
The memo said Booker had worked with the police union and the chiefs of police but “froze out” other police groups. They urged their members to contact their member of Congress. “This will likely be our best, and maybe only, chance to save American law enforcement from a catastrophe,” it read.
“If a union believes this is a good deal for cops, I’d be wanting my dues back if I were a cop,” Graham told The New York Times, a warning taken by the police unions.
A source with the sheriffs’ association rejected the notion that they had derailed the negotiations, insisting the group simply was “asked for opinions,” which it provided.
The Fraternal Order of Police then put out their own press statement criticizing the National Association of Police Organizations for using “hyperbole and misrepresentation.” The group called for unity among law enforcement, and criticized other groups for being "more interested in throwing rocks.”
While the Fraternal Order of Police never publicly backed the Booker proposal, they tempered their reaction.
“We aren’t taking a position until Booker and Scott have gotten together a document that is going to be agreed to,” Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, said in a recent interview.
Two sources warn that the disagreement may have moved negotiations further apart: Some Republicans have begun demanding that instead of eliminating qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that exists only because of court cases should be made permanent in written law.