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Bipartisan Negotiations On Capitol Hill Failed To Produce A Police Overhaul Bill

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There were weeks of protests across the country after George Floyd's killing last year and many activists hoped that that would in turn lead to police reform by Congress. Half of Congress did that. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act passed the House twice, mostly along party lines. The Senate, though, was another story. This week, Democrats announced that the talks were over. Democratic Representative Karen Bass said Republicans wouldn't agree to any of the compromises proposed by Democrats. She says they even offered to put former President Trump's executive order on policing into the law. Republicans still said no. Representative Bass talked to our co-host A Martinez.

KAREN BASS: When we started the legislation over in the house that was passed twice, the goal was to have transformative legislation in our country - to transform policing in the United States. When you go so far in compromising that you're just barely moving the needle forward, it reached the point where it wasn't acceptable.

A MARTINEZ, BYLINE: Are you saying that Senator Tim Scott was not negotiating in good faith?

BASS: No, I'm not saying that. I'm saying that the philosophical differences were too fundamental, that Senator Scott essentially did not believe in a role for the federal government in policing. Remember, the bill passed the House. But the big question - remember - over in the Senate was whether or not Senator Scott would have been able to get 10 votes.

MARTINEZ: Congresswoman, I remember back in late April, I watched you on TMZ tell Harvey Levin that police reform, an agreement on it was about 80% a done deal. What happened?

BASS: Exactly. I absolutely believed that because the signals that we were getting from Senator Scott was very, very hopeful, very encouraging. And I felt that we were definitely going to get there. I was optimistic up until about the last month.

MARTINEZ: What was the other 20% back then that still was not agreed upon?

BASS: Well, two items that were fundamental from the beginning was qualified immunity and holding police accountable in terms of lowering the bar to prosecute officers. So one of the things that's so frustrating to communities is they never see officers prosecuted. They don't see charges brought. Or charges might be brought, but then they're dropped. And the reason for that is the bar to prosecute an officer is so high, it is, you know, virtually impossible. So when you do see a case like George Floyd, it's extremely rare.

MARTINEZ: But Congresswoman, you've downplayed, though, the role of qualified immunity in these talks. In fact, you said that...

BASS: I have.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. You said it's - there was no main sticking point, not qualified immunity. So I think for a lot of people who are really paying a lot of attention to this, it's hard for them to believe that qualified immunity wasn't the main sticking point.

BASS: No, it really wasn't. It honestly was not. But you know, the George Floyd bill - I mean, I don't remember the exact number of policies in the bill. Let's just say about 15. Qualified immunity was one of them. But there were many other areas as well. And we were willing to compromise on qualified immunity. So that's the other reason why I said it wasn't the primary sticking point. It just wasn't.

MARTINEZ: On all of this, it's fair to say that people of color would be most impacted by meaningful police reform. Yet...

BASS: Yes.

MARTINEZ: What should we make, though, Congresswoman, of the fact that three leaders of color could not eventually find a way to make this happen?

BASS: Well, if it was as simple as that (laughter), maybe it carries some big message. But I don't think it's as simple as that. You know, I think that the hundreds of thousands of people that were on the street last year in every state in our country and many countries around the world created significant momentum and did bring about change in many states and many cities. So we might not have succeeded on the federal level, but the protests absolutely did bring about change. I think, frankly, if the senators had been able to do what we did in the House, which was pass the bill when the momentum was there, maybe we would have been more successful. So just remember, in the House we did accomplish what we were supposed to do. But there's a long list of bills in the Senate graveyard because of the structure of the Senate. I think that's far more important than the color of the people that negotiated.

MARTINEZ: And I think most people would agree with you that the death of George Floyd really sparked a lot of passion that led to action on a lot of things. But now, as you've put it, on that bill that was named after him - I believe your quote was, "I think we missed our moment."

BASS: Right.

MARTINEZ: And to me, that sounds like you've lost hope. Have you?

BASS: No. No, no, no. Are you kidding? I mean, I've been working for this for decades. No. There's no way I lost hope. Now, what we did is we called on the Biden administration to use the full weight and power of the administration to issue new executive orders that move the needle forward where we couldn't.

MARTINEZ: That's Representative Karen Bass. Thank you very much for the time.

BASS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.