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Congresswoman Bass Talks About The Police Reform Bill That's Been Stalled Since March

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

August recess on Capitol Hill is right around the corner. And still, congressional leaders have been unable to agree on a police reform bill. The House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act back in March, and that legislation has stalled in the Senate ever since then. Democratic Congresswoman Karen Bass of California introduced the legislation more than a year ago. And she joins us now.

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

KAREN BASS: Thanks for having me back.

CHANG: So when we last had you on, you had told my colleague, Ari Shapiro, that you would hope the conviction of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who murdered George Floyd, you had hoped that a conviction in that case would help push your bill across the finish line. Let me ask you, has any notable progress been made since Chauvin's conviction?

BASS: Well, you know, we've had fits and starts. I think that might be the best way. There were times when I felt like we are ready to go public and get it across the finish line. And then, we had a setback. And so now, the hurdle is the Senate. And, you know, it's the hurdle with every single piece of legislation because of the filibuster.

CHANG: Right.

BASS: You have to get 60 votes. And so that puts Tim Scott in the catbird seat.

CHANG: Right, Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina.

BASS: Yes, that's right - who is up for re-election, I might add. We have now had a number of the police organizations that have weighed in and are essentially arguing against just about anything and everything in the bill.

CHANG: Well, let's talk about one specific concern that Senator Scott and many other lawmakers have, and that is qualified immunity. Last weekend, Senator Scott told Fox News Sunday that conversations are ongoing, but he also said that allowing civil lawsuits against individual police officers is, quote, "dead stop, not going to happen." That, of course, is one of the provisions in your bill. So what kind of compromises are you willing to consider when it comes to qualified immunity?

BASS: Well, qualified immunity has received all of the attention. But I do have to tell you, there's at least 20 other components to the bill that we think are extremely important. When it comes to qualified immunity, what Senator Scott was saying is, is that he does not want to see individual officers sued.

CHANG: Right.

BASS: The whole reason why an officer would be sued in the first place is because there has been an egregious violation of civil rights. So we're not talking about lawsuits that would be brought because you're mad at the way the officer spoke to you or some trivial reason. It has to be an egregious violation of civil rights so you can go after an individual officer. And officers around the country, the average salary is around $40,000, so how much are you going to get from that to begin with?

CHANG: What about allowing police departments to be sued instead of individual police officers? Is that a compromise that you'd be willing to make?

BASS: Yes, it is.

CHANG: OK.

BASS: It is a compromise. It is a compromise that has been discussed. I will tell you that qualified immunity still remains up in the air. But contrary to the press coverage, we have spent very little time talking about qualified immunity. The bulk of our time have been talking about the other 18 to 19 aspects of the bill. Because frankly, if we could reach agreement on the majority of those, we would still have a substantial piece of legislation. Then we can look back at qualified immunity.

CHANG: You mentioned law enforcement groups. Republicans obviously need the support of law enforcement groups in order to back this deal, which would be difficult if this deal in any way looks like it's trying to undermine police departments. How do you propose Republicans try to sell this legislation to law enforcement? Like, how would you help them make that case?

BASS: Well, first of all, there is nothing in any part of the bill that is an attempt to undermine law enforcement. Law enforcement, like any other profession, should have accountability, transparency, checks and balances and standardizations like any other profession. Wouldn't you want to have standards? The person that does your hair has to pass a test, has to have standards, is licensed. And we feel that policing should be no different.

CHANG: I want to turn to the Biden administration now...

BASS: Sure.

CHANG: ...Because changing policing in America was an issue that President Biden and Vice President Harris campaigned on. What are you hearing now from civil rights groups and other activists? Do they feel that the Biden administration had made this issue a priority and now it's become less of a priority than originally advertised during the campaign?

BASS: I think that that criticism has been raised on some issues like voting rights. I do not believe that's the case in terms of policing because we have worked closely with the civil rights groups, and I know they have worked closely with the administration. The logjam is in the Senate.

CHANG: OK. Well, if a deal does not get done before August recess, what happens after that? How do you keep this conversation going among lawmakers?

BASS: The Senate will be in session for another week. And, you know, what is very typical in the legislative process is that when things look like it's over, it's done, it's blown up, two days later, you get a bill (laughter).

CHANG: But if something does not get done by next week...

BASS: If we don't get it by the August recess, it doesn't mean it's over unless the two senators decide to quit.

CHANG: Democrat Karen Bass of California, thank you very much for joining us today.

BASS: Thank you for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.