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Senators aim to revive police reform talks but face major hurdles

Lawmakers were engaged in similar talks after the murder of George Floyd, but they fell apart in 2021, frustrating Democrats.
People protest for justice for Tyre Nichols in New York on Friday.
People protest for justice for Tyre Nichols in New York on Friday.Julius Constantine Motal / NBC News

WASHINGTON — Senators are seeking to revisit police reform talks after the release of graphic videos of Memphis officers fatally beating Tyre Nichols, although some are skeptical they’ll reach an agreement that can pass in the new divided Congress.

It’s the second time in three years that lawmakers have sought to advance legislation for new rules about police practices. The previous effort came after the murder of George Floyd.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Monday that he has initiated a discussion with Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the committee’s top Republican, about one of the major sticking points of failed bipartisan police reform negotiations two years ago: qualified immunity for officers.

“I want to rekindle this conversation,” Durbin told reporters. “And if others want to participate, they’re welcome as far as I’m concerned.”

Durbin also said that he’ll reach out to Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and that Graham will talk to Sen. Tim Scott, a fellow South Carolina Republican; Booker and Scott, along with Karen Bass, then a Democratic House member who was the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus Chair, were engaged in police reform talks after the 2020 murder of Floyd, but they fell apart in 2021, frustrating Democrats.

Bass left Congress to become mayor of Los Angeles, and Scott is considering a 2024 bid for president, in which he could be courting a conservative base that doesn’t believe federal legislation is the answer.

In a floor speech Monday evening, Scott took aim at Durbin for saying on the Sunday news shows that Scott and Booker should return to the negotiating table. “I never left the table,” Scott said.

Graham said Monday he has discussed the issue of reviving a policing bill with Durbin but cautioned: “I don’t know what the space is for that.” Graham argued that officers should be shielded from civil lawsuits from private citizens but is open to changing federal law to make police departments liable for the actions of their officers.

“I think qualified immunity should stay in place for individual officers, but I’ve always been of the view that departments need to be held accountable,” Graham told reporters. “It’s got to be in cases involving death or grievous bodily harm. … In those cases, I would support allowing lawsuits.”

While there’s some bipartisan willingness to discuss a way forward, it’s far from clear lawmakers can find common ground. Memories of failure from 2021 and a new Republican-led House that’s not eager to take up the issue — along with the volatile politics of rising crime — loom over any discussions.

“I think it’s probably less likely to happen now with divided government,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the former GOP whip and a close adviser to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. 

Asked about liability for police departments, Cornyn added: “We’ve been talking about it for two years and never been able to get to consensus on that. I’m sure it will be the subject of continued conversation, but I don’t know what the pathway is on that.”

Graham conceded that Congress is “probably less likely” to succeed on a police bill now than in 2021.

“I don’t know if there’s 60 votes or anything in the Senate,” he said. “The problem is the crime problem. This ‘defund the police’ effort, which wasn’t police reform, has taken a toll. You have some pretty extreme voices on the left. And I don’t think they speak to the mainstream of Democratic senators, but they have taken a toll on this whole debate.”

Even some high-ranking Democrats aren’t forcefully pushing for police reform, a sign of just how heavy a lift it would be in a divided Congress during a presidential election cycle. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a floor speech Monday that he was “heartbroken, horrified and appalled” by Nichols’ death and called for “lasting, meaningful change,” but he stopped short of demanding specific police reforms.

“The repetitiveness of unjust murders like Tyre Nichols is a stain on America,” Schumer said. “The five police officers who betrayed their oath to serve and protect should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

One top Republican, House Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan of Ohio, said he's not sure Congress can pass any bill that would prevent such beatings at the hands of police.

“Well, I don’t know that there’s any law that can stop that evil that we saw that is just difficult to watch. What strikes me is just the lack of respect for human life,” Jordan said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” adding that there may be ways to provide incentives for better policing with federal grants for state and local law enforcement agencies.

“So I think there’s some things we can look at, but it’s just a difference in, I think, philosophy. Democrats always think that it’s a new law that’s going to fix something that terrible.”

House Oversight Committee Chair James Comer, R-Ky., also stopped short of calling for policing legislation but said law enforcement needs to do a better job carrying out background and reference checks for new officers.

“There are bad apples in every profession, bad politicians, bad police officers — and they need to be held accountable,” Comer said Monday at a National Press Club event in Washington.

In March 2021, the Democratic-led House voted 220-212 to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. The only Republican who voted for it, Rep. Lance Gooden of Texas, said that he did so by mistake and that he opposes the bill. The vote led to months of talks — featuring Bass, Booker and Scott — to craft legislation that could pass in the House and achieve 60 votes to break a filibuster in the Senate.

The two sides were closing in on a deal on some provisions, like imposing limits on chokeholds and “no knock” warrants, providing mental health resources for officers and preserving records of misconduct. But talks stalled over some irreconcilable differences, including whether to roll back qualified immunity for police officers — a priority of civil rights advocates that Republicans strongly opposed.

But with the House having changed hands, the task for reformers has become more difficult, as it now requires winning over Republicans who have long been skeptical of the cause.

Asked about Jordan’s skepticism that a police reform bill can succeed in the House, Graham said: “Well if he’s right, it dies. I don’t know if he’s right or not. You never know until you try.”