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Police reform negotiations fail in Congress amid partisan bickering

WASHINGTON – Efforts to reach a bipartisan compromise on a national police overhaul are on the verge of collapsing Congress, as year-long negotiations threaten to crumble under the weight of heavy ideological differences and an action window that closes quickly.

After a Minneapolis jury in April found the white cop who killed George Floyd guilty of murder, lawmakers on both sides were cautiously optimistic the verdict would provide new momentum to break the deadlock that had plagued negotiators since. Mr. Floyd’s death. President Biden also lent his support, calling on Congress to act before the first anniversary of the murder in late May.

But that deadline has passed, and weeks after the verdict, negotiators are still at odds on the same list of controversial issues, including whether to change criminal and civil penalties to make it easier to punish police officers in the event of a breach. misconduct. Now lawmakers struggling to break the deadlock and police lobby groups involved in the talks are vying for a new proposal, and there is no clear way left to bridge their divisions before a self-imposed deadline at the end of June.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” said Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, the Republicans’ senior envoy on the issue, who took on a more optimistic tone as recently as last week. “The devil is in the details, and now we meet the devil.”

Mr Scott and his Democratic counterparts – Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and Representative Karen Bass of California – were hoping to work out the final details of a rare bipartisan deal right now. Both sides have repeatedly expressed optimism about the possibility of merging competing proposals presented last summer into a single bill to improve officer training, create a national database to track police misconduct and make it easier for victims of misconduct to sue officers or their services in court.

Instead, on Thursday Democrats and Republicans found themselves trading veiled beards over a written proposal released this week by Mr Booker that appears to have only sidelined the two parties and pitted powerful groups against each other. law enforcement to each other.

Democrats told their Republican counterparts that at least one of those groups, the Fraternal Order of the Police, had supported key provisions of the document, according to congressional aides familiar with the talks. The New York Times obtained a copy of the text.

The proposed measure would lower the threshold for the federal government to prosecute officers who commit gross misconduct and violate an individual’s constitutional rights. It would also change the legal doctrine known as qualified immunity to make it easier for victims or their families to sue police departments and municipalities, but not individual officers.

But rather than produce a major breakthrough, Mr. Booker’s idea seemed to backfire. Republicans accused him of acting alone in an attempt to sway major police interests in favor of an overly liberal bill. The more conservative National Sheriffs Association blew up its content and began lobbying against it on Capitol Hill, and the Fraternal Order of Police quickly hit back.

“There’s no way in hell that goes anywhere,” said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. “The conversations we had about police reform were completely different from the document that was produced. “

Mr Graham argued that the proposed changes to the penal code would allow ‘the most liberal federal prosecutors’ to ruin the lives of individual police officers who have caused minor injuries like cuts and grazes – a claim that a Democratic aide has dismissed as exaggerated. Republicans were more in favor of making it easier for victims to sue departments and cities, but also questioned how Mr. Booker had structured this change.

“If a union thinks this is a good deal for the cops, I would get my dues back if I was a cop,” Graham said, referring to the Fraternal Order of the Police.

Jonathan Thompson, executive director of the sheriffs group, said its members had “serious concerns” about the project, “but remain open to the possibility that something balanced and reasonable is achievable.”

Jim Pasco, executive director of FOP, has unequivocally denied that the organization has weakened its standards for the protection of officers and said the group will not support legislation that does.

“We would never sell our members for any reason,” he said in an interview.

In a blow to the National Sheriffs’ Association, Pasco added that the group “is often upset, and it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint the exact reason.”

The public spasm of discontent underscored the delicate balance required to move forward. While Mr. Floyd’s death and the national protest movement it inspired helped drastically change public opinion on race and law enforcement issues last summer, Republicans also turned their backs on heavily focused on political attacks that portray Democrats as enemies of law enforcement, and themselves as its protectors.

Democrats really want a deal, but believe that an end product that does not make it easier to hold officers accountable for wrongdoing would not adequately respond to the racism they say runs through US police.

Thursday’s pessimism also shattered the optimistic tone that surrounded the talks for months. With lawmakers willing to divulge only the smallest details of their talks, the media has often exaggerated the extent of their progress, adding further difficulty to reaching a deal. Mr. Scott, Mr. Booker and Mrs. Bass may not have helped. In an effort to build momentum, they have repeatedly told reporters that they expect a breakthrough in a few days, or a week, or imminently. Each deadline is passed without agreement.

“We are days, but it could be 30 days or 25 days – who knows? Mr Booker said on Thursday, when reporters urged him to report on conflicting assessments of when the group might come to a conclusion – if it can. “There is a lot of work to be done in a very short period of time.

Mr. Graham and other Republicans close to the talks insisted there was still reason for optimism. Mr Booker, Mr Scott and others involved in the talks are due to meet with key law enforcement groups next week.

“There will be several versions of it,” said Senator James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma. “We’re still going to solve it. I don’t care.

The current deadline, at the end of June, however, seems to be a firm breaking point. If the negotiators cannot come to an agreement among themselves by then, they will probably not have enough time to assess their party’s support more broadly and bring it to the floor for a long debate and vote before the Congress only leaves town for a six-week summer break. Once lawmakers return, both sides agree that the specter of a mid-term campaign risks overwhelming any bipartisan goodwill on such a politically heavy issue.

“There is momentum for a deal,” said Holly Harris, executive director of the Justice Action Network. “In fact, I would even call it the desperation of a deal. But important challenges lie ahead. I just urge those who are working on this and really want a deal and want to change laws and lives, not to add to these obstacles.

Police reform negotiations first collapsed last summer after Senate Republicans refused to pass Democrats’ sweeping bill, named Mr Floyd, which would have reduced immunity qualified, facilitated misconduct prosecutions and gave direct police warrants, including restrictions on the lethal use of force. Democrats in turn blocked a Republican-led effort to pass more modest legislation led by Mr Scott that encouraged departments to change their practices and included penalties for departments that did not restrict the use of strangulation or did not require the use of body cameras.

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