Analysis: Optimism on police reform in the Capitol collides with anguish in the streets

Published April 25, 2021, 4:05 a.m.

While the murder conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who killed George Floyd last May, demonstrated accountability in one case that was a cause for celebration among activists last week -- the troubling series of police shootings just in the days that followed has underscored how one verdict will not produce the kind of transformational societal and cultural change that is needed to stop the disproportionate killings and injuries of Black and Brown people during encounters with police.

Newly released 911 audio on Friday showed that 32-year-old Isaiah Brown, who is Black, was shot by a Virginia sheriff's deputy early Wednesday while he was talking to a 911 dispatcher. An attorney for Brown's family, David Haynes, said in a statement that Brown was "on the phone with 911 at the time of the shooting and the officer mistook a cordless house phone for gun" -- in yet another inexplicable incident.

The deputy has been placed on administrative leave while the incident is being investigated, but Virginia State Police told CNN Brown was unarmed. He has serious but not life-threatening injuries.

The death of 16-year-old Ma'Khia Bryant, who was shot and killed by a Columbus, Ohio, police officer about 30 minutes before the guilty verdict was delivered in the Chauvin trial, has touched off protests and another heated debate over when officers are justified in their use of force -- and what more they could be doing to deescalate conflicts before pulling their weapons. Body camera video of that shooting showed Bryant lunging toward another young woman with a knife when she was shot.

A new dispatch audio recording, posted to the archives of the website Broadcastify, captured the moments after Andrew Brown Jr. was shot and killed by deputies on Wednesday morning in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. First responders can be heard saying he was shot in the back. Details about that incident have been difficult to get and seven deputies were placed on administrative leave after the shooting, which occurred while they were attempting to serve Brown with an arrest warrant. Brown's death has sparked both protests and widespread calls for the officers' body camera footage to be released publicly, including from North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat. The district attorney for the region and the Pasquotank County attorney said in a joint statement Thursday that the body camera footage cannot be released without a court order.

When considered together, the circumstances of the shootings illuminate the complexity of the nation's problems with police training, systemic racism and the culture this nation has fostered in which police too often resort immediately to the use of deadly force. And at the same time demonstrators are demanding change, some Republican-led states are passing laws that would make protesters more vulnerable. For example, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, signed a bill last week that grants immunity to drivers who unintentionally injure or kill protesters while attempting to flee a demonstration.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that six in 10 Americans believe more should be done to hold police accountable for the mistreatment of Black people, while 33% say the US is doing too much to interfere with how they do they their jobs. But there was a sharp partisan divide on that finding: 85% of Democrats and 58% of independents said the country should do more to hold officers accountable for their mistreatment of Black people, compared with only 31% of Republicans.

There is still broad disagreement between the two parties about how far Congress should go to punish police misconduct.

But the recent shootings also illustrate how the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act that is being considered in Congress -- which would set up a national registry of police misconduct and overhaul qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that protects law enforcement officers from civil lawsuits -- will only address some aspects of the problem, and would not necessarily have prevented any of the violence that unfolded last week. The bill has already passed the House, but has faced a more difficult path in the evenly divided Senate, where Democrats lack the votes to overcome a Republican filibuster.

But there were new signs of hope last week that Republican and Democratic lawmakers are at least serious about making a deal on police reform -- and lead negotiator Rep. Karen Bass of California, a Democrat, said she hoped the two sides could put together a framework by late May, which would be the one-year anniversary of Floyd's murder. Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina floated a potential compromise on reforming qualified immunity, arguing that police departments could be held accountable even if individual officers are still shielded.

But a number of progressive Democrats immediately rejected that idea.

Rep. Stacey Plaskett, a Democratic congressional delegate for the US Virgin Islands, told CNN's Pamela Brown Saturday night that substantive changes must be made to qualified immunity, explaining the passion behind the push to do so.

"Qualified immunity has in many instances become the hood for bad police officers to, in fact, act as modern-day Ku Klux Klan members against Black and Brown people in this country. And it has got to stop," Plaskett said. "The most conservative members of the Supreme Court say that Congress needs to do something about qualified immunity. And we cannot shirk our responsibility to victims and Americans at large because we are afraid of the unions, or talking points, or those on the right who have used the blue wall as a shield against American justice."

Meanwhile, Scott said he opposes Democratic efforts to lower the legal standard to prosecute individual officers, which Bass said is a key issue for Democrats, who are pushing to change federal law to ensure that police officers can be charged for "reckless" conduct, rather than "willful" misconduct under existing law -- currently a higher bar to meet in court.

Biden administration steps up its visibility on the issue

Biden plans to make a push for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in his first address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, marking his first 100 days in office and laying out his priorities going forward. Newly confirmed members of his Justice Department are also taking a more active role on the issue.

Attorney General Merrick Garland, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco and Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta met in person at the Justice Department, and virtually, with police chiefs from major cities and influential police leaders from around the country Friday to discuss ideas for police reform, according to a spokesman for the attorney general. Garland also announced last week that he was opening a federal civil investigation into policing practices in Minneapolis.

Though the Biden administration has mainly taken a hands-off approach to police accountability legislation, suggesting that Congress should take the lead, Americans will be looking for answers from the new President Wednesday night on how he plans to stop these senseless killings.

Vice President Kamala Harris sounded an optimistic note in an interview with WMUR in New Hampshire Friday where she called the House-passed police reform bill a critical step toward repairing relations between grieving communities and the law enforcement officers who are supposed to protect them.

"I absolutely believe there is a way to rebuild trust, but it will not happen by itself," she said. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, she said, "would be a step toward building back that trust—it is about saying there should be accountability."

But it is not yet clear how much political capital the White House is willing to spend to help broker a deal that pulls Senate Republicans on board -- and creates a real chance for substantive change.


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