The Thin Blue Line Is in Retreat

On Capitol Hill and in public opinion, the police are suddenly no longer untouchable.

Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and other politicians wearing masks and kente cloths take a knee.
House and Senate Democrats kneel in silence for eight minutes and 46 seconds to honor George Floyd in the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center on Monday in D.C. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

During a press conference introducing the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, House and Senate Democrats’ joint legislation to reform law enforcement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi laid down a marker for the Senate.

“Once the House passes the Justice in Policing Act, Leader McConnell will, hopefully—he must swiftly take it up,” she said. “The president must not stand in the way of justice. The Congress and the country will not relent until this legislation is made into law.”

This is the usual rhetorical playbook for issues like raising the minimum wage, the DREAM Act, or expanding gun background checks: popular legislation from which Democrats can exact a political price for Republican inaction down the legislative assembly line. So it was striking to hear this confident language associated with some of the most sweeping proposals in modern memory to rein in federal, state, and local police—constituencies that elected officials, both Democrats and Republicans, have traditionally been terrified of even casting vaguely disparaging looks toward. The police may not have changed. But the politics surrounding police abuse, since the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing protests, have shifted almost overnight.

“This is a powerful movement,” New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker said Sunday, “and it has made legislation like this, that was probably impossible to do a month ago, possible.”

Booker was among the Democrats who compiled the package, along with California Sen. Kamala Harris; California Rep. Karen Bass, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus; and New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee. The bill would ban chokeholds for federal police and would condition state and local police funding on similar bans; it would also ban (and condition state and local funding on banning) no-knock warrants. It would forbid the transfer of certain military-grade equipment from the federal government to state and local police while requiring better accounting of the equipment that remains transferable. It would reform qualified immunity, allowing people to seek civil damages against police officers when their rights are violated, and it would mandate the use of body cameras and dashcams. The federal threshold for criminal police misconduct would be lowered from “willfulness” to “recklessness,” and there would be a federal prohibition on “racial, religious and discriminatory profiling.” A national police misconduct registry would be established to prevent bad cops from simply moving to another jurisdiction to get new jobs.

These are not all ideas that have sprung into Democrats’ heads overnight. Much, if not most, of the legislation has been previously introduced, and many members, especially those within the Congressional Black Caucus, have been working on these issues for years.

Since the protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, however, these ideas may be reaching their moment for action, as the scourge of police abuse is breaking through to a mass audience.

An NBC News–Wall Street Journal survey over the weekend found that, asked whether they were more concerned about “the actions of the police and the death of an African American man” or “protests that have turned violent,” 59 percent of voters chose the former, while only 27 percent chose the latter.* Among white voters, it was 54 percent to 30 percent, respectively. A Monmouth poll last week similarly found that a “majority of Americans (57%) say that police officers facing a difficult or dangerous situation are more likely to use excessive force if the culprit is black, compared to one-third (33%) who say the police are just as likely to use excessive force against black and white culprits in the same type of situation.” That’s an inversion from a 2016 Monmouth poll, when only 34 percent said police were more likely to use force against black suspects.

“Currently, 49% of white Americans”—a plurality—“say that police are more likely to use excessive force against a black culprit, which is nearly double the number (25%) who said the same in 2016,” Monmouth wrote. On these findings, the Republican pollster and famous message-crafter Frank Luntz tweeted that “in my 35 years of polling, I’ve never seen opinion shift this fast or deeply. We are a different country today than just 30 days ago.”

“The movement for police accountability has become a rainbow movement, reflecting the wonderful diversity of our nation and the world,” Bass said while introducing the legislation. “The power of this movement will help Congress to act, to pass legislation that not only holds police accountable and increases transparency, but assists police departments to change the culture.”

It was similar to an observation that Barack Obama made last week, in suggesting that we weren’t going through a repeat of 1968’s political tumult.

“You look at the protests [of 2020], and that was a far more representative cross-section of America out on the streets peacefully protesting who felt moved to do something,” Obama said. “That didn’t exist in the 1960s, that kind of broad coalition.”

Is the coalition for police reform, however, broad enough to prompt action from congressional Republicans? Sen. Mitt Romney saying “Black Lives Matter” at a protest is one thing; Mitch McConnell putting a bill on the Senate floor that would even slightly inconvenience police officers is another. For now, Trump, McConnell, and Republicans are more interested in putting Democrats in a box by forcing them to take a position on defunding the police, a demand from activists that’s arisen during the Floyd protests.

If “defund the police” is the new far-left position that Republicans will use to tar Democrats, though, that still represents an implicit retreat from what they’re willing to recognize as the acceptable middle ground: reform.

Late Monday morning, for example, the conservative former governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, tweeted a poll for his followers. “Reform the police or defund the police? I pick reform,” he said. While he may have intended this as a means of dunking on the left, it was actually a useful piece of news: Even Walker had come around to reforming the police. The ground is shifting underneath their feet so quickly that they might not realize what they’ve realized.

Correction, June 8, 2020: This piece originally incorrectly referred to the Wall Street Journal as the Wall Street Journey. It also misstated the percentage of voters in an NBC News–WSJ who said they would be more concerned about “protests that have turned violent.” Only 27 percent of voters said this, not 34 percent.