Police reform's potential qualified immunity compromise may not be enough to get progressives on board

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A potential compromise on the controversial qualified immunity doctrine might not be enough to get progressive Democrats on board with a police reform deal, possibly endangering its passage in the House if too many left-leaning Democrats vote against it. 

Punchbowl News reported Wednesday that congressional police reform negotiators are sharing the text of a possible deal and are optimistic it could be finalized soon. Among the details, Punchbowl reported, is a provision that would allow people who say they’ve had their rights violated by police to sue government entities responsible for officers, like departments or cities, but not individual officers. 

But Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., who was among a group of progressive House Democrats to sign a letter last month saying qualified immunity “must” be eliminated in any reform deal, appeared to pour cold water on the idea in a statement to Fox News Wednesday. 

“What we are in search of is the incentive to treat Black men and women with the dignity and respect that their humanity demands. Right now cities have been paying wrongful death suits to the tune of billions of dollars and we haven’t seen a change in the behavior of officers,” Watson Coleman said. 

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., leaves the House Democrats’ caucus meeting in the Capitol on Wednesday, March 6, 2019. Watson Coleman panned the reported details of a potential police reform compromise in a Wednesday statement. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
(Getty Images)

“We don’t want another settlement, we want cops to stop killing unarmed people,” she continued. “Extending the consequences of the actions of police to the officers themselves may give bad officers pause in a way that hasn’t yet been true. We need changed behavior and we need accountability. Individuals and poor leadership must be held accountable for their actions if this is to happen.”

The letter Watson Coleman signed last month said “police violence, as a weapon of structural racism, continues to have devastating and deadly consequences for Black and brown lives” and asked reform negotiators to “strengthen the provision eliminating qualified immunity as negotiations in the Senate continue.”

She was joined by Reps. Cori Bush, D-Mo., Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., Mondaire Jones, D-N.Y., Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill. 

That group, if Republicans decline to support a police reform bill in the House, could sink legislation progressives don’t think does enough if they stick together against it. The left-leaning House members carry enough votes to negate the very slim Democratic majority. But if a significant number of Republicans and most Democrats vote for a reform bill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other supporters of police reform may not need those progressives. 

05.21.2021 QI Letter by Fox News

Democrats generally favor getting rid of qualified immunity, a judicial doctrine that shields government officials of all stripes from being personally sued for violating somebody’s rights in the course of reasonably doing their jobs unless the breached rights are “clearly established in the law.” In practice, this often means that police officers who go well beyond their authority in handling an incident cannot be held civilly liable for their actions.

Republicans, meanwhile, are generally for preserving qualified immunity with a handful of exceptions. Enough Republicans staunchly oppose eliminating qualified immunity that Democrat negotiators signaled they would be willing to leave the judge-created doctrine in place for the sake of a bipartisan police reform bill – although they say they want to address qualified immunity separately in the future.

“Without qualified immunity, how do you get people to do law enforcement work? There’s a bill that passed the House of Representatives that would eliminate qualified immunity… means every police officer would be subject to being sued personally,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in Kentucky last week. The remarks were streamed by 14 News.

“If every single one of those incidences becomes a potential personal lawsuit,” McConnell continued, “I’m not sure any of you guys would want to do what you do. I mean, how could you recruit?”

Representatives for Schakowsky, Bush, Jones, Ocasio-Cortez and Jayapal did not respond to a request for comment from Fox News Wednesday. Neither did representatives for Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., one of the GOP police reform negotiators who has said he supports qualified immunity. 

The Fraternal Order of Police declined to comment, saying it does “not negotiate in the press.” 

Fox News’ Jacqui Heinrich contributed to this report. 

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