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.