Civil Rights Organizations Express Concern Over State of Congressional Negotiations on Police Accountability

July 8, 2021 1:45 pm

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WASHINGTON — Today, a group of over 20 leading civil rights organizations sent a letter to Senate negotiators expressing concerns about the state of negotiations on qualified immunity and urging them to empower victims of police misconduct to hold law enforcement officers and agencies accountable through civil lawsuits. Last summer, following the largest protests in American history, the House was moved to pass legislation on police accountability, including an end to qualified immunity for law enforcement, when millions of people marched in the streets demanding recourse for police misconduct.

Recent media reports indicate that despite the willingness of major law enforcement groups to come to the bargaining table, the negotiations over the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act have been obstructed by a small number of law enforcement groups that are using it as an opportunity to advance proposals that would continue to insulate officers from accountability when they violate the law. The letter notes that:

  • Unless the course is corrected, the Senate bill that comes out of these negotiations has the potential to take us backwards by strengthening/fortifying the already substantial legal barriers to holding law enforcement accountable for violating peoples’ constitutional rights;
  • Some policymakers involved in the negotiations are demanding that qualified immunity for law enforcement officers be codified in the bill, suggesting that only law enforcement agencies should be held liable — not individual officers — for episodes of police abuse, and only in cases involving death and the most serious bodily injury;
  • This demand would provide no recourse for the victims of other forms of brutality; violations of First Amendment rights, including religious liberties; intrusions on privacy and dignity; sexual abuse; and other unconstitutional conduct by law enforcement that does not meet these narrow parameters; and
  • Despite the willingness of major law enforcement groups to come to the bargaining table, the vocal objections of a small number of law enforcement groups appear to be derailing needed reforms to current barriers for law enforcement accountability.

“This is a once in a generation opportunity to create strong police accountability, yet we have serious concerns about the current path of negotiations,” said Udi Ofer, director of the ACLU’s Justice Division. “Dozens of civil rights organizations have come together to ask the Senate to meet the calls of the people and ensure that law enforcement officers and their departments are held accountable for constitutional rights violations. A meaningful bill would include provisions to not only hold police accountable, but also to rein in police use of force. We are worried that the current path of negotiations may actually lead to less police accountability, not more.”

In the letter, the organizations state that if the weaker proposals outlined become law, it will take a tragic step backwards by further strengthening the shield of qualified immunity for law enforcement officers.

The letter sent to lawmakers urges negotiators to continue to work to improve this proposed bill to end qualified immunity and adopt more changes to prevent law enforcement violence and end law enforcement impunity. That should include the PEACE Act’s robust use-of-force standard, as the House-passed Justice in Policing Act did. It would also include putting an end to the 1033 program, which distributes weapons of war to police departments. Moreover, other legislation introduced in Congress this session, such as the Mental Health Justice Act and the People’s Response Act, addresses the outsized role and resources of law enforcement.

The letter is here:

The letter was signed by the following leading civil rights organizations:

American Civil Liberties Union
Amnesty International USA
Autistic Self Advocacy Network
Center for Disability Rights
Church World Service
Coalition of Labor Union Women
Constitutional Accountability Center
The Daniel Initiative
D.C. Democratic Caucus for Returning Citizens
Drug Policy Alliance
Hispanic Federation
Human Rights Campaign
Human Rights Watch
Innocence Project
Japanese American Citizens League
The Justice Roundtable
Justice Strategies
LatinoJustice PRLDEF
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund
National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
National Association of Social Workers
National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA (NCC)
Open Society Policy Center
Project On Government Oversight
Protect Democracy
Sikh Coalition
The Taifa Group

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