You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation
Under The Gun

The Urgency of Police Reform Is at the Mercy of a Divided Congress

A Republican House and Democratic Senate could complicate negotiations, but some still hope for a revival of talks two years after the last failed effort.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Two years ago, Senators Cory Booker (left) and Tim Scott tried unsuccessfully to get Congress to sign off on bipartisan police reform. Capitol Hill has only grown more divided since.

The killing of Tyre Nichols, the 29-year-old who died from his injuries after being brutally beaten by Memphis police officers, has renewed hopes in some quarters that Congress may resurrect discussions around police reform legislation. But past failures could spell doom for the current effort, even as this most recent incident of police violence remains front of mind for many Americans. The political conditions that allowed negotiations to crumble nearly two years ago have only intensified in a newly divided Congress, where there is limited appetite for bipartisan reform. However, advocates and some lawmakers are hopeful that the video of Nichols’s beating could help shake Congress out of its apathy.

“They have got to understand that this is a bipartisan conversation. This is no longer a Republican or Democrat conversation. This is a bipartisan conversation, because people are actively losing their lives,” Keisha Deonarine, the director of opportunity, race, and justice at the NAACP, told me on Tuesday.

But lawmakers sounded a cautious note early in the week on the prospects of revived talks. In a Monday tweet, Senator Lindsey Graham tentatively floated the idea of a potential agreement on qualified immunity—the judicially derived doctrine that shields government officials from being held personally responsible for violations of constitutional rights. But when Graham was asked by reporters on Tuesday whether there was momentum to revive negotiations, he replied: “I don’t know.” He said that he would talk to Senator Dick Durbin, the Democratic chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Senator Tim Scott, the only Black Republican senator and one of the key negotiators in previous police reform discussions.

Scott delivered a fiery speech on the Senate floor on Monday, arguing that he “never left” the negotiating table while accusing Democrats of prioritizing politics over compromise. “Politics too often gets in the way of doing what every American knows is common sense,” said Scott, who is considered a potential contender for the Republican nomination in the 2024 presidential election. Democrats, led by then-Senator Kamala Harris, blocked Scott’s legislation in 2020, arguing that it did not go far enough to address the issue of police brutality.

Negotiations on bipartisan legislation, led by Senators Cory Booker and Scott in the Senate and then-Representative Karen Bass in the House, began after Derek Chauvin was found guilty in the death of George Floyd in the spring of 2021, but fell apart in September of that year. At the time, Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress, but comprehensive police reform legislation which passed in the House that year had been unable to reach the 60-vote threshold of support needed in the Senate.

Qualified immunity, which shields officers from civil liability, has been one of the biggest sticking points between police reform negotiators; Democrats favor ending qualified immunity, while Republicans argue that eliminating it could leave law enforcement open to frivolous lawsuits. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which passed in the House largely along party lines in 2020 and 2021, would have reformed qualified immunity to make it easier to pursue claims against officers in civil court. The legislation also would have banned choke holds and no-knock warrants in drug cases, and included provisions addressing police education and training, and data collection.

Booker and Bass presented a more moderate proposal to Scott. “We had moved a long way from the George Floyd bill,” Booker said at the time. Scott rejected the Democrats’ framework in part because it would have enshrined into law a 2020 executive order by then-President Donald Trump requiring that local police departments be certified by a “reputable independent crediting body”; Scott argued that it cut off a stream of funding by making grants contingent on accreditation. He offered a counterproposal, which Democrats did not consider substantive.

Representative Steven Horsford, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, spoke with Scott over the weekend, according to The Washington Post. He has also engaged with the White House on the issue, speaking with President Joe Biden on Monday. A group of caucus members will be meeting with Biden later this week.

Horsford has invited Nichols’s family as his guests to the president’s State of the Union address next week; he told the Post that he is hopeful that Biden will address police reform in his remarks. “We want him to be involved in this because it’s important enough to the American people that all of our communities are safe,” Horsford said. Representative Joyce Beatty, the former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, told me on Tuesday that Horsford had been “convening stakeholders”—including law enforcement, civil rights leaders, and the president—to continue negotiations.

The issue may be comparable to bipartisan gun safety legislation, which Congress approved last year—the first significant measure of its kind in decades. “You may not agree on an AR15, but you totally agree you don’t want your kid shot up and not come home from school,” Deonarine said, likening those negotiations to a potential starting point for police reform negotiations. “There is a solution, a common ground for every problem.”

Beatty argued that the language of “divided Congress” inaccurately portrayed the stakes of the issue. “When you look at what’s happening, especially recently with Tyre, we have to take words like ‘divided Congress’ out when we are talking about things that shouldn’t be political,” Beatty said, adding that the video of Nichols’s beating could spur further action. “What we witnessed the other day with Tyre, I think it should be something to help us move in a more collective direction.”

But aside from the need to obtain nine Republican votes for any reform legislation to pass the Senate, the House may offer even more of a hurdle to bipartisan negotiations. It may not be possible to find common ground if there is not even agreement that something can be done. Representative Jim Jordan, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, told NBC News on Sunday that he didn’t know if “there’s any law that can stop that evil that we saw.”

“What strikes me is just the lack of respect for human life. So I don’t know that any law, any training, any reform is going to change,” Jordan said. “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.”

Representative James Comer, the chair of the House Oversight Committee, said on Monday at a Washington Press Club event that “bad apples” in the profession “need to be held accountable.” This ideological divide—the desire to fix systemic issues versus the belief that holding individuals accountable is a sufficient solution—could prove to be too difficult to bridge in a way that allows consensus to form around a set of shared reforms.

While the recorded scenes of Nichols’s harrowing beating have shocked many since they were released last week, Deonarine warned that there is a “numbing component” of videos of police brutality as well. She expressed her hope that there’s still time for Congress to be jolted into action. “We need to start somewhere. These are those conversations that continue to come up,” she said. “I think, slowly but surely, something’s got to be introduced. We may not know at this point what it is, but for us to go blind and continue to not push the agenda, that’s the problem.”