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Image: People stand in front of a mural of George Floyd in Houston, Texas
People stand in front of a mural of George Floyd in Houston on June 8, 2020.Johannes Eisele / AFP - Getty Images file

Why the House police reform bill named for George Floyd matters

The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is a police-reform measure, but it should also be seen as civil-rights legislation.


The original plan was for the Democratic-led House to pass its democracy-reform package, the "For the People Act," on Wednesday and their police-reform bill, the "George Floyd Justice in Policing Act" on Thursday. But fearing a security threat from right-wing radicals, the chamber ended up passing both pieces of legislation on Wednesday night.

The former bill -- arguably the most important legislative effort in a half-century to bolster our democracy -- ended up overshadowing the latter, which is a shame because the police-reform bill matters, too. NBC News reported this week:

The bill, among other things, would ban neck restraints and "no knock" warrants in drug cases at the federal level. It would also reform qualified immunity, which is a doctrine that makes it difficult to sue officers.... The Biden administration threw its support behind the bill Monday. The White House said trust between law enforcement and communities can't be rebuilt unless police officers are held accountable for abuses of power.

The list of major provisions in the bill isn't short. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act also bans discriminatory profiling at every level of U.S. law enforcement, mandates dashboard cameras and body cameras for federal law enforcement, and establishes a National Police Misconduct Registry to prevent "problematic" officers from moving between precincts and jurisdictions.

Indeed, to describe this as a police-reform bill is accurate, but in some ways, the label is also incomplete: this should also be seen as civil-rights legislation.

It passed the House on a 220-to-212 vote, which fell largely along party lines, with one notable exception: Rep. Lance Gooden (R-Texas) unexpectedly voted with Democrats. But before anyone applauds the Texas Republican for a bold move, note that Gooden later explained that he'd supported the bill accidentally and didn't realize it until it was too late. (There's a rich history of lawmakers who've inadvertently cast mistaken votes.)

Regardless, the bill now heads to the 50-50 Senate, where Democratic leaders will no doubt try to advance it. We already know, however, that it faces long odds: even if conservative Senate Dems were willing to vote for the reforms, there's no realistic chance 10 GOP senators would break ranks and end a Republican filibuster.

But before we give up on the idea of progress altogether, it's probably worth noting that some Senate Republicans did propose a reform bill last summer, in an apparent attempt to persuade voters that the GOP took the issue seriously in an election year. Sure, the bill was flawed. And sure, Republicans didn't want to bother with hearings or buy-in from experts and stakeholders. And sure, the bill predictably died, at which point GOP senators quickly moved on in ways suggesting they didn't really take the issue too seriously.

But at least the Republican bill existed, and it's hard not to wonder if the White House might try to reach out to its proponents to see if there's room for some kind of compromise on the issue.