The editorial board
MAY 25 2021
A year has passed since George Floyd was asphyxiated by Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who was last month convicted of murder. Given the graphic footage of Floyd’s killing, it would have been a shock had the verdict gone any other way. Yet the multiracial throngs who poured on to the streets after Floyd’s murder — both globally and in the US — have been fundamentally let down. Sweeping vows to overhaul US police culture have yet to happen. It is one thing to remove monuments to the confederate generals who fought to defend slavery in the US civil war. It is quite another to bring about the practical reforms that could restore — and in some cases instil for the first time — minority community faith in their local police.
The most practical monument to change would be for the US Senate to approve the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which has already been passed by the House of Representatives. The bill would ban federal police from the kind of practice that led to Floyd’s death and so many others — including the chokehold and the carotid hold (where blood flow is constricted to the brain by pressure on the neck arteries). It would also condition federal money to local and state police forces on banning such practices.
The bill also restricts the transfer of surplus military equipment to local police forces, which the Pentagon has been doing for years. Such hardware only reinforces the alienation between many minority communities and the people whose job it is to protect them.
Most important, the bill would remove the “qualified immunity” protection that shields all but the most egregious police offenders — such as Chauvin — from accountability. Senate passage is likely to hinge on whether Democrats and Republicans can find common ground on diluting that near-blanket protection. Given its sweeping nature, police officers only rarely face serious consequences when deaths occur. For example, the officer who in 2014 applied a lethal chokehold on Eric Garner, a young black man, was exonerated by a grand jury five years later. Garner, whose death, like Floyd’s, was also caught on video, and who also repeatedly said “I can’t breathe”, was arrested for selling cigarettes without licence. He posed no threat to the group of police officers around him. Such impunity should not be tolerated in a country that champions equality before the law.
It is much too early to write off the bill’s prospects. President Joe Biden initially called on Congress to pass it by May 25, the anniversary of Floyd’s death. That deadline has passed. But there is still hope that Tim Scott, the Republican South Carolina senator, who is African American, and Cory Booker, the Democratic New Jersey senator, who is also African American, can find a compromise. Biden sensibly chose not to insist on an artificial deadline that could have derailed the talks. Republicans claim the Chauvin verdict proves the system works. In reality it was the exception that proved the rule.
Republicans also argue that watering down qualified immunity could pave the way to nuisance lawsuits that would tie up police departments indefinitely. There may be some merit to that objection. The solution is to draft the legal principle very clearly. But there should be no compromise on making police more accountable. Biden has spelt out that he rejects the activist demand to “defund the police”, which he rightly treats as a dangerous red herring. Republican claims that any reform would open a slippery slope to defunding the police is simply false. The choice is between the status quo or overdue change. The status quo is indefensible.