Top GOP senator: Easing police protections hurts departments

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., right, speaks to the media next to Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., Tuesday, May 18, 2021, after a meeting with Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., right, speaks to the media next to Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., Tuesday, May 18, 2021, after a meeting with Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

WASHINGTON – The Senate’s top Republican on Tuesday linked Democrats’ efforts to make it easier to sue police officers to problems many law enforcement agencies are having recruiting and retaining personnel, drawing a hard line on the thorniest divide between bargainers seeking compromise on legislation revamping police procedures.

The remarks by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., suggested it would be difficult to win crucial Republican votes for a deal erasing the protection that individual officers generally have from civil lawsuits. The Democratic-run House approved legislation earlier this year ending that shield, and many Democrats and social justice groups want its elimination included in any agreement.

Speaking to a group that included police officers at an event in Owensboro, Kentucky, McConnell said their job often involves physical confrontations like breaking up fights.

“If every single one of these incidents becomes a potential personal lawsuit, I'm not going to ask for a show of hands but I'm not sure any of you guys are going to want to do what you do. I mean, how could you recruit?" he said.

McConnell made similar comments in early May, an assertion that some experts have supported but other say is unfounded or one of many factors. But Tuesday’s remarks came days after South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, the chief Republican bargainer, indicated he wants to strike a deal this month with Democrats on the effort or halt talks, suggesting time is running out.

“Just the discussion of this issue, as you've seen in some of the major cities across the country, police retirements are up, recruitment is down,” McConnell said of officers' legal protections. He called Scott “a very credible spokesman for this issue, and I'm confident that if we can get a bipartisan agreement, he'll be the author."

Scott has proposed retaining the legal shield, called “qualified immunity,” for individual officers but making it easier to sue departments.

An aide to McConnell provided news articles in which officials and union leaders cited problems attracting and retaining officers in cities including Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and Louisville, Kentucky.

Some of those quoted said efforts to strip officers' immunity contributed to the problems. Some cited other problems as well, including the outcry against fatal shootings by police of Black people around the country, especially last year's killing of George Floyd by a now-former Minneapolis officer who's been convicted in the death.

James Burch, president of the National Police Foundation, said there's a lack of national data on recruitment and retention and that many groups besides police face hiring problems. Burch, whose group is a nonpartisan research organization, rejected the assertion that congressional negotiations over qualified immunity was a significant factor.

“In the absence of any clear path or actual change to qualified immunity at the federal or national level, it seems implausible that officers would be retiring early due to the debate over or even threats to qualified immunity," he said in a written statement. “We’d be more confident pointing to job conditions and impacts, low pay, long hours and negative sentiment as possible causes.”

Aides to Scott, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Democratic bargainers Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and California Rep. Karen Bass did not provide comments on McConnell's remarks.

The negotiators are also discussing provisions that could curb chokeholds and no-knock warrants, boost reporting requirements on the use of force and check the transfer of military equipment to police.

In a Senate divided 50-50 along partisan lines, Democrats would need support from at least 10 Republicans to overcome GOP procedural delays aimed at killing an agreement.