Dec 22, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Police lawsuit bill may renew reform talks

U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) with his arm extended speaks during a rally near the U.S. Capitol.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) has filed legislation advocates hope may offer an opening to resume stalled bipartisan talks over police reform.

Why it matters: It would allow excessive force lawsuits against police departments, agencies and the federal government — but not individual officers, a stumbling block in earlier efforts.

  • Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, a Republican point person on reform talks, said months ago he favored “making the employer responsible for the actions of the employee." But he has not signed on as a co-sponsor and his office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Details: Whitehouse's bill would provide uniform measures for victims to sue state and local governments and federal agencies for excessive force.

  • Currently, state and municipal laws vary over whether individuals can pursue civil action for constitutional rights violations by officers.
  • Individuals cannot sue a federal officer for monetary damages unless specifically authorized under a statute.

What they're saying: “As chain-of-command organizations, police departments decide how to train, supervise and discipline their personnel.  That means departments ought to bear responsibility for the behavior of their officers," Whitehouse told Axios.

  • Holding employers liable for the actions of their employees is “a time-tested and proven way to encourage responsible management."

The intrigue: Qualified immunity — protection for officers against individual lawsuits — was a major source of disagreement between Democrats and Republicans.

  • Scott said in a statement in May, "The real question is, how do we change the culture of policing? I think we do that by making the employer responsible for the actions of the employee."
  • Police unions, like the National Fraternal Order of Police, have said ending qualified immunity was a non-starter.
  • The group has not taken a stand on Whitehouse's proposal. FOP spokeswoman Jessica Cahill told Axios, "We are analyzing the bill and plan to talk with Sen. Whitehouse about it.”
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