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House passes police overhaul bill banning chokeholds, curbing officer immunity and more

Police on Capitol Hill (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)
March 04, 2021

On Wednesday night, the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives passed a sweeping overhaul of laws governing police action including banning chokeholds and reforming qualified immunity for officers.

The bill, titled the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021, passed on a vote of 220 to 212. The vote passed nearly along party lines with Democrat support, while one Republican lawmaker voted for the bill and two Democrat lawmakers voted against it.

The House passed a similar bill in 2020, but the then-Republican-controlled Senate never took up the legislation. Democrats now have narrow control of the Senate, with the body split 50-50 and Vice President Kamala Harris able to case tie-breaking votes. Still, the bill will likely have to win over 10 Republican senators to avoid fillibusters of the bill, according to The Guardian.

The bill aims to set national standards for policing, with such features as a nationwide ban on the use of chokeholds. George Floyd died on May 25, after Minneapolis Police detained him and one officer, Derek Chauvin, kept his knee on the back of Floyd’s neck for several minutes. Floyd’s death sparked nationwide protests and riots over the summer of 2020.

The bill also attempts to reform qualified immunity, the legal principal that protects police and government officials from most lawsuits stemming from their actions on the job. The bill’s attempt to reform qualified immunity states, for officers accused of misconduct, it is no longer a defense for officers to claim they were acting in good faith, or believed their actions were lawful or that any constitutional rights they are alleged to have violated were not clearly established at the time of their alleged violation.

Qualified immunity is likely to be a sticking point in negotiations between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate. Police unions have primarily raised concerns about that provision of the bill. The National Association of Policing Organizations called it the “most concerning aspect” of the bill. The Fraternal Order of Police said it is strongly opposed to the changes to qualified immunity the bill and “without debate or discussion, these issues cannot be resolved.”

Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) said reforming qualified immunity and lowering the requirements for police to be prosecuted are “the only measures that hold police accountable, that will actually decrease the number of times we have to see people killed on videotape.”

The bill would also create a national task force within the Department of Justice, to provide oversight over policing.

The bill also sets requirements for police to use body camera and recording but prohibits facial recognition cameras.