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Senator Mike Braun Discusses Bill Reforming Police Qualified Immunity

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

After George Floyd's death, after other killings, there is a cry for dramatic change in how policing is done in America. One reality is police officers are rarely held accountable. They've been found not guilty in court. It is also really difficult for victims of police brutality or their families to seek damages. Advocates of reform say this is because of qualified immunity. This is a legal doctrine that sets a higher standard for police and other public officials to be held liable for violating someone's rights.

In Congress, Democrats say this has to be addressed in any bill they'd support. But many Republicans say there are better ways to hold the police accountable. Republican Senator Tim Scott, who is leading GOP efforts on this, said efforts to end qualified immunity is a poison pill that could derail any effort for real change.

Now despite that, one Republican, Senator Mike Braun of Indiana, has taken this on. He introduced a bill yesterday that would limit qualified immunity. And Senator Braun is on the line with us. Good morning, Senator.

MIKE BRAUN: Hey, good to be on.

GREENE: Well, it's good to have you. I just want to ask about the specific change you are calling for here. It would allow a victim of police misconduct to seek damages unless a police officer's actions were specifically allowed by the law or by a previous court ruling. Why did you settle on this?

BRAUN: Well, trying to find that perfect text to eliminate frivolous lawsuits but yet have the ability to redress those horrific instances is not easy. We spent time because eliminating qualified immunity is a poison pill or a non-starter. But there are more Republicans than what you might imagine that would be interested in a smart refinement of it. Democrats - and it looks like this is going to end up, even though amendments were offered to where this could have been a landing spot - and I think it would have been the landing spot with enough Democrats and Republicans - to get something through, doesn't look like it's going to happen. Nothing happens here quickly. Maybe we've moved on this issue more quickly than most from my observation. But I don't know that it will happen today to where we continue the current discussion. But there is...

GREENE: Now, as you...

BRAUN: ...A sweet spot. There is a sweet spot that we can hit. And if we don't do it, I think we're going to have more occurrences, as rare as they are. They're going to be along the lines of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor.

GREENE: Well, I want to ask you - I mean, you say that it looks like this effort might be stalled in the Senate. And indeed, it looks like it is headed that way. And thank you for updating us on that. I guess I just wonder - I mean, who in your party was ready to support something like this? You say you had Republicans. I mean, who - did you line anyone up? Did you talk to them? Did you get anyone saying officially that they would back you here?

BRAUN: Several that if it was going to get to the point where we were going to have the ability to amend and debate - and we allowed that. And then it goes back to the Democrats thinking that that is some type of trap or a snare. And they apparently aren't going to have seven votes to proceed. And generally, that comes from leadership on either side when you get to a pivotal point like this and it looks like nobody's going to break ranks. So...

GREENE: So your party plays a role here. Right? I mean, couldn't your leadership have come out or some other of your colleagues have come out and said - you know what? - this is something that we could support here that Senator Braun is leading? And that might have opened the door for some kind of agreement or negotiation.

BRAUN: They - they did in the sense that it was going to allow amendments. And mine would have most likely been one of them. But we couldn't even get to the - there was, I guess, some distrust on the part of the Democrats that would actually happen. That is how caustic it's gotten, you know, within government to where there's even a distrust in terms of how you proceed technically to get something done.

And a lot of times if you do give us seven votes, their worry might be - well, we don't do enough with it. That still means they could vote against whatever would come to the floor in terms of the final bill. I think the onus is going to be on them to explain why they're not allowing this to move to the next step because at first, we didn't think we were going to be able to debate or amend. And that was part of what was going to happen. They still won't allow it to move forward, which I'm disappointed with.

GREENE: You're saying that - you're putting on the Democrats here.

BRAUN: In terms of the process here because...

GREENE: Well, then can I just ask you about Republicans?

BRAUN: Sure.

GREENE: I mean, let's talk through what happened here. You are saying that this is an issue that's very important to you, thinking about the deaths of people like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. But you have Tim Scott, your colleague, saying this is a poison pill. You have the president saying addressing...

BRAUN: Eliminating it - eliminating it, not modifying it.

GREENE: Then why come out and even use the term poison pill and things like that if it might have been more helpful to say, yeah, let's talk about this?

BRAUN: And I agree in that we're not blameless in this whole process. And we've been foot draggers on issues, in my opinion, on reforming health care. We were slow - I was the first Republican to join the Climate Caucus. And I think if we do not engage in a way where maybe we move more into the direction of making this work, we'll be at stalemates continually on the big issues that we confront.

And I don't like it. It's frustrating to me. I come from a government in Indiana where we did get things done. I was on a school board for 10 years before becoming a legislator for three years. The mechanics are so different. Of - and they - there are comparisons that I think we need to look at in terms of how other functional entities across this country get something done. Here, it gets so inflammatory, so politicized that we get at these impasses, and we're at one now.

GREENE: And just to be clear, you see it as an impasse. I mean, this is very likely - the effort at real change right now is likely to die in the Senate this week.

BRAUN: Well, let me put it into context. When I got here and everybody was high-fiving about criminal justice reform, I said, by the way, how long did it take? Ten to 12 years. And I think that was largely due to the fact we were running out of prison space. Nature of the beast, this has moved more quickly in a short period of time. Even if it fails today, I don't think it's going to go away.

GREENE: Republican Senator Mike Braun from Indiana. Senator, thank you so much.

BRAUN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.