By Isaiah Poritz, opensecrets.org
September 23, 2021 1:06 pm
Formal talks on bipartisan police reform legislation broke down on Wednesday after the two parties failed to put forward any joint legislation on the issue. That underscores the political power of police unions, which have rallied against reform. The talks began last year amid national outrage after George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was killed by police in Minnesota.
Negotiators from both parties took aim at each other for the failed talks, with Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), President Joe Biden and other Democrats arguing that Republicans rejected even the most minimal reforms, while Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said Democrats walked away from a clear comprise.
But Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), the lead negotiator for House Democrats, blamed the disintegration of negotiations on police unions.
Chief among the issues that forced the stalemate was qualified immunity, the legal principle that protects police officers from facing civil lawsuits.
The National Fraternal Order of Police, which represents over 355,000 members, is against legislative efforts to end qualified immunity. The organization’s president, Patrick Yoes, said in a Senate Judiciary hearing last year that “police officers need protection in order to perform discretionary functions fundamental to law enforcement.”
The organization and its subsidiaries spent $90,000 on federal lobbying expenditures in the first half of 2021, and spent $270,000 in 2020. The group’s five lobbyists reported lobbying on 28 different bills this year including the Qualified Immunity Act of 2021, introduced by Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) to put qualified immunity for police officers into federal law.
Other police unions spent similar amounts on lobbying. The National Association of Police Organizations spent $80,000 on lobbying through the first half of this year and $160,000 each year since 2008. The International Union of Police Associations spent $40,000 so far this year and $80,000 each year since 2005.
The effort to stop police reform legislation has worked. Congress hasn’t been able to push through any reform despite legislative proposals from both parties.
In 2020, the House passed the George Floyd Justice in Police Act, a sweeping police reform bill that would have ended qualified immunity and only provided federal money to police forces that banned chokeholds and no-knock warrants. The bill didn’t receive a vote in the Senate.
In June 2020, Scott introduced his own bill that Democrats argued didn’t go far enough. The New York Times reported that Scott met with the president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, Larry Cosme, and former Attorney General William Barr while he wrote his legislation, and Cosme and Barr lobbied against an end to qualified immunity.
Scott’s bill didn’t address qualified immunity or provide incentives to ban chokeholds and no knock warrants.
The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association spent $70,000 on lobbying so far this year and $120,000 last year.
The money spent on lobbying does not capture the full extent of police union power. Endorsements by police unions can hold sway over the votes and campaign contributions of hundreds of thousands of law enforcement officers.
Data compiled by OpenSecrets shows that current and retired police officers gave at least $1.5 million to candidates in both parties during the 2020 election. Fifty-five police union and law enforcement PACs have donated over $1.1 million to congressional campaigns in both parties since 1994.
Many of the biggest recipients of police union campaign contributions are Democrats, including Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), who co-chairs the House Law Enforcement Caucus, House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), and Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).
OpenSecrets data shows that Pascrell received $43,000 from police unions and law enforcement PACs since 2004 and Hoyer has received $35,500 form those groups since 2005. Over their careers, Leahy received $21,250 from those groups and Klobuchar received $15,000.
In 2020, the National Fraternal Order of Police PAC gave 83% of its contributions to Republicans, the first year the PAC gave more to Republicans than Democrats since 2004.