Two Democrats crossed the aisle to vote against a police reform package introduced by their colleagues that would bring broad changes to the way policing is carried out across the country. One of the key oppositions to the bill was that it weakens legal immunity for officers, making it harder for them to do their job.
Reps. Jared F. Golden (D-Maine) and Ron Kind (D-Wis.) on Wednesday voted to preserve the qualified immunity that protects officers from being sued because of a split-second decision made in the line of duty.
The Democrat-controlled House of Representatives passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in a 220-212 vote.
Golden said in a press statement that, while he voted in favor of the bill last year, he was not satisfied with eliminating qualified immunity.
“My vote for the bill at the time reflected my sincere desire to move forward with negotiations, even though I held significant concerns about how the House bill eliminated qualified immunity protections for law enforcement officers,” he wrote.
Golden said that he would have liked the change to qualified immunity in the package to have been amended to take into account the difficult situations officers often find themselves in.
“Because I understand what it is like to make split-second, life-and-death decisions under pressure, and out of respect for the difficult decisions confronting law enforcement officers in the line of duty, I will not support this legislation today.”
In a press statement by Congressional Black Caucus Chair Karen Bass (D-Calif.), Democrats summed up the change to the legal doctrine, saying the legislation “reforms qualified immunity so that individuals are not barred from recovering damages when police violate their constitutional rights.”
Qualified immunity is a legal protection that safeguards police officers from liability for being sued in a civil case for violating a right of a suspect. This little-known legal doctrine came into focus after convicted felon George Floyd died in police custody as then-officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Floyd was later found to have had a fatal level of fentanyl in his system at the time. The video of the incident sparked protests around the country and brought qualified immunity to the forefront.
Kind did not publicly address the specifics for his opposition to the reform bill and his office did not immediately return a request for comment about his vote.
A former mayor and first responder, Congressman Carlos A. Gimenez (R-Fla.) talked about the importance of qualified immunity and the possible consequence of eliminating the protection.
“Democrats discuss ways to push needed police reforms, but in this dysfunctional Congress, we got a bill that strips our frontline police officers from qualified immunity, that will weaken and possibly destroy our communities’ police forces,” said Gimenez.
“Taking away qualified immunity will lead to police officers not taking the decisive action and rendering impossible [their ability] to do their job. Without the security, officers will resign and deplete our [forces].”
Beyond qualified immunity, Republicans oppose the package because they say it will take millions of dollars away from police departments. GOP Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said that although Democrats all declare that the reforms do not include defunding police departments, records show that since last May Democrat-run cities have taken millions away from law enforcement.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) countered Jordan’s accusation about defunding the police, calling Republicans’ claim a lie.
“It would be an irresponsible policy to defund the police and we are not for that,” said Hoyer.
Although the Democrats’ reforms don’t directly call for eliminating money from departments, they have called for “reimagining” policing, saying the “bill reinvests in our communities by supporting critical community-based programs to change the culture of law enforcement and empower our communities to reimagine public safety in an equitable and just way.”
Another key objection to the police reform bill is its halt on police departments receiving military surplus equipment, which Democrats say intimidates citizens and communities of color and Republicans say keeps officers safe in life-threatening situations.
The Package now moves to the Senate for consideration. Golden said that, unlike last year, the House and Senate should come to an agreement for the reforms.
“Law enforcement officers have spoken passionately about their commitment to protecting their communities, and they are open to new policies that could bring about improvements to how they do the job,” he said. “With that in mind, there was a lot of room for agreement between the House and Senate bills last summer, and that still remains true today.”