Home News World Police Groups Wield Strong Influence in Congress, Resisting the Strictest Reforms

Police Groups Wield Strong Influence in Congress, Resisting the Strictest Reforms

WASHINGTON — As Americans were clamoring in the streets last week to defund the police and as Democrats in Congress were drafting legislation to make it easier to track and prosecute officer misconduct, Larry Cosme, a leader of the police lobby, was at the White House making a direct appeal to some of President Trump’s top advisers against some of the most consequential reforms.

At a meeting in the State Dining Room that included Mr. Trump, Attorney General William P. Barr and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, Mr. Cosme and about two dozen other law enforcement leaders listened as families of victims of police violence spoke emotionally of the need for a different approach, and pledged that they were ready to make some changes.

But afterward, Mr. Cosme, the president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, pulled aside Mr. Scott, who was putting the finishing touches on Republicans’ policing bill, and Mr. Barr to push back against two of the most aggressive ideas under consideration: peeling back qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that shields police officers from lawsuits, and building a national database of civilian complaints against them.

He left the meeting unworried. “Attorney General Barr assured us it wouldn’t go that far,” Mr. Cosme recalled.

Indeed, the bill that Mr. Scott introduced the next day fell well short of that, and on Wednesday, it stalled in the Senate, as Democrats called it a woefully inadequate response to the problem of systemic racism in law enforcement. They pushed their own, far more aggressive measure through the House on Thursday, but it too has little chance of survival in the face of Republican opposition.

The resulting stalemate reflects the vast ideological gulf between the two parties and the legislative paralysis that has taken hold in Congress, where striking an election-year deal to overhaul policing was always going to be a challenge. But it is also partly a result of a quiet but successful federal lobbying campaign by law enforcement organizations and their representatives, who have spent decades building relationships in Congress and waging a persistent influence campaign of policy advocacy, political contributions and endorsements.

Staring down a bipartisan swell of momentum in Congress for passing policing legislation in response to throngs of protests against police brutality and racial bias, the groups have swung into action on Capitol Hill in recent weeks to wage a little-publicized campaign against the most sweeping reforms proposed by lawmakers: stripping officers of qualified immunity, ending no-knock warrants and building a national database of complaints against the police.

Just as unions have fought aggressively across the country to fend off changes, they have used their clout in Washington to resist new federal mandates or restrictions. Their power helps explain why Republicans have rejected some of the most aggressive measures to rein in police tactics, and why Democrats — sensing political advantage on the issue — appear to have calculated, at least for now, that their legislation is not even worth debating.

“We’re not going to abdicate our rights,” said Mr. Cosme, whose association has spent nearly $400,000 lobbying Congress since 2017. “We’re going to come out swinging. We’re not going to back down.”

They have found sympathetic ears at the White House, where Mr. Trump has declared himself the “president of law and order,” and open doors in the Senate, where Republican lawmakers refused to embrace any changes until they received assurances from law enforcement groups that they would not oppose the efforts.

“Too often we’re having a discussion in this nation about are you supporting the law enforcement community or are you supporting communities of color,” Mr. Scott said as he unveiled his bill. “This is a false binary choice.”

After conversations with Mr. Scott and his staff, Sheriff David Mahoney, the incoming president of the National Sheriffs’ Association, said his team was able to “massage some of the language” in the Republican bill to bring in “perspectives that would be more consistent with the needs of law enforcement.”

“They made a commitment to continue working with law enforcement,” Mr. Mahoney said.

His calls to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, by contrast, were not returned.

“I’ve not heard back from them, which is unfortunate because I’ve spoken with the staff and the speaker on many occasions,” Mr. Mahoney said.

That dynamic reflects the shifting political terrain now facing police unions and advocacy organizations on Capitol Hill, as they try to weather a national outcry in favor of placing stricter restrictions on their profession.

For years, powerful police organizations have resisted calls for major changes in the way they do their jobs, even after the widespread protests of 2015 over the killing of black people by the police. They have been successful in doing so partly through their lobbying and campaign activity, and partly because members of both political parties feared alienating them and being portrayed as “soft on crime.”

Six of the larger police organizations have spent a combined $2.9 million since 2017 lobbying the federal government. The United Police Officers Association super PAC has spent more than $7 million in the past two years alone. And various law enforcement entities have contributed more than $100,000 to members of Congress this election cycle, roughly evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.

They are known for their annual lobbying trips to Washington in May, when unions send representatives to Washington to glad-hand with lawmakers, staying in four-star hotels near Capitol Hill, meeting with their aides and celebrating them with yearly awards luncheons.

Law enforcement groups have condemned the killing of George Floyd during an encounter with the police in Minneapolis as “morally bankrupt” and a “betrayal of the public trust.” In response, they have embraced some reform efforts, including restrictions on chokeholds, the creation of a database of officers fired for misconduct, and increased federal funding for training in de-escalation techniques and the widespread use of body-worn cameras.

But they have fiercely fought the most far-reaching changes advocated by civil rights groups and most Democrats. They argue that stripping officers of qualified immunity could bankrupt officers over accusations that end up being false. They oppose banning no-knock warrants, which they say could endanger officers entering the homes of people with guns. And they have pushed hard against building a database cataloging all accusations — proven or not — against the police, which they view as a privacy violation.

“We welcome change, but we welcome change with an open dialogue and a seat at the table,” Mr. Cosme said.

The House passed a bill on Thursday that contained several provisions the police groups opposed. The sweeping measure would effectively end qualified immunity for officers, make it easier to track and prosecute police misconduct, strictly limit the use of lethal force and aim to compel departments to ban chokeholds and other tactics that can cut off individuals’ airways. It contains no new funding for police departments.

The legislation won the support of three moderate Republicans, who joined a united bloc of Democrats to back the measure. It is expected to run into a brick wall in the Senate, where Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, has called it “typical Democratic overreach.”

Mr. Scott’s measure, by contrast, has won the support of police groups, who were pleased that it included more than $1 billion in federal grants for training and equipping the police and were relieved that it did not alter the qualified immunity doctrine that shields officers from lawsuits or mandate any other changes they are resisting.

The vast divergence reflects a political shift that is threatening to sap some of the historically bipartisan influence of police organizations at the federal level. Moderate Democrats in Congress have long seen endorsements and perfect grades from law enforcement groups as a way to emphasize their law-and-order credentials, a prerequisite for political success in many conservative-leaning districts.

But as polls show the Black Lives Matter movement gaining purchase nationwide and as protests against police brutality spring up in suburban districts, the strident opposition of unions and other police groups has lost some of its bite. When House Democrats unveiled their expansive police reform legislation, even the most politically vulnerable lawmakers signed on as sponsors.

Representative Josh Gottheimer, Democrat of New Jersey, a self-described moderate who boasts of a 100 percent score from the National Association of Police Organizations, quickly signed on to the Democrats’ bill.

He said representatives of local police unions in New Jersey are not thrilled about some of the reform efforts, but they concede the profession needs to change.

“They know they need reform,” Mr. Gottheimer said. “They’ll accept a lot of it. There’s parts of it they are more willing to accept than others.”

Aides to top Democrats say police unions have lost some sway inside the party, as its most progressive members call for dismantling departments outright. More than two dozen House Democrats — including Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — have signed a “No Cash From Cops” pledge saying they will not take any campaign contributions from police unions.

Representative Kweisi Mfume, Democrat of Maryland and a former N.A.A.C.P. president, said he had seen more give this year from law enforcement groups like the Fraternal Order of Police than in previous eras.

“The sort of reflexive action by F.O.P.s around the country has been to push back and not want to accommodate,” Mr. Mfume said. “But because these protests are so massive and so enlarged, there might be more of a willingness now than ever before.”

Senator Mike Braun, Republican of Indiana and a lonely proponent in his party for stripping away police officers’ qualified immunity, said he believed that as instances of police violence continued to grab headlines, law enforcement groups would come around to bigger changes.

“It’s giving them a bad rap,” Mr. Braun said. “Nobody wants to change the status quo when it’s heavily in your favor — until you need to.”

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