Rep. Karen Bass 'hopeful' about passing policing reform as negotiations intensify

To get the bill on Biden's desk, "bipartisanship is everything," Bass said.

May 23, 2021, 3:17 PM

As the anniversary of George Floyd's death approaches, negotiations over policing reform have intensified after lawmakers revealed Congress will miss the Tuesday deadline to pass federal legislation -- a target President Joe Biden and top legislators were hoping to meet.

Biden, in his joint address to Congress in April, urged lawmakers to bring the policing reform bill to his desk to sign into law by the anniversary of Floyd's death.

Watch "After Floyd: The Year that Shook the World -- A Soul of a Nation Special" Tuesday, May 25, at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.

In a primetime interview set to air on ABC News' "Soul of a Nation" Tuesday, Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., expressed her disappointment about not being able to reach a deal by the anniversary of Floyd's death but said she feels confident that she and her fellow legislators will reach an agreement soon.

"It would be wonderful if we had the bill ready in the next few days for the anniversary of Mr. Floyd's death. However, I know the Floyd family. I know myself and I know all of us here are far more concerned about having a substantive bill that actually makes serious changes to policing in America. And that is far more important than us making an artificial deadline. Now, having said that, we can't take forever. We have to get this done, but it won't be done on May 25th," Bass said, later adding, "I wish it would have happened last year, frankly, especially at the height of the momentum. But it is not the case."

Rep. Karen Bass has served California's 37th Congressional District since 2011.

Following the signal on Friday that Congress was not on track to bring the bill to a vote by the deadline, a White House official told ABC News that Biden and his team are engaged with Congress on this issue and are "giving the negotiators room to work through" the bill.

Bass, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. are leading the efforts to craft a bipartisan bill that could pass both chambers of Congress.

"Bipartisanship is everything if we want to get the bill on President Biden's desk. The only way to do that is to bring a bipartisan bill in the Senate and I'm very hopeful that we will be able to accomplish that," Bass said. "We've all been working together."

In March, the House of Representatives passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which aims to increase law enforcement accountability by ending no-knock warrants, banning chokeholds, creating a national registry for police misconduct and seeking to end qualified immunity. However, it has yet to be considered in the Senate, where it will need support from at least 10 Republicans to pass.

Bass, chief author of the act, reflected on the legacy of Floyd, the 46-year-old Black man who was murdered by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. She also called the racial reckoning that followed his death the catalyst for a new phase of the movement against police brutality and excessive force, an issue that many say has persisted in communities of color for generations.

"I think one of the legacies of George Floyd is that, up until now, people really have not been willing to admit there was a problem. You can't address a problem if you don't believe the problem exists," Bass told ABC News.

"In the United States, we have 18,000 police departments and we have 18,000 ways policing is practiced. Like any other profession, it needs to be modernized. There needs to be standards, there needs to be accountability, there needs to be transparency and there needs to be accreditation," she added.

A year after George Floyd was killed, ABC News dives into the cataclysmic, generation-defining moment that led to change around the world. Premiering Tuesday at 10|9c on ABC.
A year after George Floyd was killed, ABC News dives into the cataclysmic, generation-defining moment that led to change around the world. Premiering Tuesday at 10|9c on ABC.

A version of the George Floyd Justice in Police Act passed the House one month after Floyd was killed last year with only three Republicans supporting the bill but the proposed legislation ultimately failed to advance to a vote in the Senate after a Republican standoff. The battle for police reform came to a stalemate after Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate, proposed GOP-backed legislation as a counter. Top Democrats criticized it as not going far enough to increase police accountability.

"Although we were not successful in getting the policing legislation passed into law last year, change happened throughout the country on a state- and local- level because of the outcry. The outrage was international. In every state in the country, people were protesting. People around the world were protesting. And all of that momentum forced legislators to pay attention to this issue. And it was the first time in my lifetime that I ever saw public opinion changed," Bass said.

"People took to the streets and raised their voices and made demands, and that is a new form of majoritarian support," said Rashad Robinson, president of the Color of Change, a progressive civil rights advocacy organization.

"Now the work is translating majoritarian support into a governing majority, into the policies that actually make a change and that's hard work. But if you think about the progress over the last 10 years, the way the conversation has moved in terms of policing, the accountability, the way the conversation starts, We are in a very different place. It doesn't mean that we have won but there has been a deep level of culture change," Robinson continued.

Since Floyd's death, at least 82 bills have been enacted across 22 states to address issues of law enforcement, data and transparency, investigations and discipline, police oversight, training and use of force, as well as law enforcement alternatives and collaboration, according to a tracking database collected by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Qualified immunity, a doctrine that legally shields government officials -- including law enforcement -- from being personally liable for constitutional violations, has prolonged negotiations around a police reform bill. While Democrats are pushing for higher police accountability measures, Republicans are hoping to keep qualified immunity intact.

Rep. Karen Bass has served California's 37th Congressional District since 2011.

A source familiar with the bipartisan negotiations told ABC News that lawmakers are discussing the possibility of modifying the parameters around qualified immunity, keeping it intact for individual police officers but allowing lawsuits against police departments.

In a letter to congressional leaders last Friday, 10 progressive House Democrats urged lawmakers "to not only maintain but strengthen the provision eliminating qualified immunity as negotiations in the Senate continue."

Civil rights advocates agree that federal legislators need to address qualified immunity to sufficiently prevent civil rights violations in policing.

"Law enforcement must be held accountable when they commit unlawful acts," NAACP President Derrick Johnson said in a statement to ABC News.

"So far, I've been encouraged by the conversations I've had with lawmakers on the bill. Congresswoman Bass, Sen. Scott, Sen. Booker and others have been very determined to address the need for police reform. It is important that this bill is substantive and that we get it right to protect our community. ... For far too long, we've seen little-to-no action on police brutality. This bill is our opportunity to take a step forward to protect the rights and lives of our community," Johnson said.

Robinson said that the current police reform bill has some provisions that increase police accountability but said ending qualified immunity is "absolutely necessary."

"I think that the fact that qualified immunity exists, is a deep problem, and it should be ended. The fact that we're in this debate and we are moving forward is a good sign. And I hope that we can get to a place where both the incentive structure changes for both police departments who protect and shield bad police office officers and create a culture that tells police officers, that they will be protected at all cost -- and that individually, police officers know that they will be they will be held responsible for their actions," Robinson said.

Rep. Karen Bass has served California's 37th Congressional District since 2011.

Bass told ABC News that police reform legislation must include higher police accountability to affect real change and address public outcries.

"There has to be a way for police to feel that they will be held accountable if they violate an individual's civil rights. And so the ability of individuals to sue officers, to sue departments, the ability for prosecutors to actually bring charges against individual police officers. The problem with the law, the way it's structured right now, is the bar to prosecuting an officer is so high. That's why you never see officers prosecuted. The bar to suing officers is so high. That's why lawsuits are very, very rare," Bass said.

Even if the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is passed, federal legislation alone will not adequately curb racial bias in policing, Bass said, adding that state and municipal governments will have to commit to implementing reforms at the local level.

"The activists who say that even with reforms there will continue to be a problem, I agree 100%," Bass said.

"You can pass all the bills you want, but then you have to fight for implementation. So I don't assume that the day after President Biden signs this bill that every police department is going to automatically comply. The communities are going to have to push to make sure that the new laws are followed. And then laws that we weren't able to get done -- that people continue pressuring to make sure that we make all of the changes that need to happen," Bass said.