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Police Reforms and Pushback Mark a Year Since George Floyd’s Death

Half the states have passed legislation to address policing, sometimes in ambitious fashion. But rising crime and discomfort with a racial reckoning have slowed momentum in many places.

George Floyd mural
Photo from George Floyd Square, an area in Minneapolis that has been designated as a memorial to George Floyd, who died a year ago today. The Floyd family and activists have used the space to bring attention to police violence against people of color, particularly African Americans.
flickr/ Cocoabiscuit
Last week, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a dozen bills designed to increase police accountability. The package makes up a small share of the hundreds of police reform bills that have been introduced over the past year.

“These bills are all going to work in coordination with one another to create a system of accountability and integrity stronger than anywhere else in the nation,” Inslee said.

Other states, including Colorado, Illinois, Maryland and Massachusetts, have also adopted sweeping new laws meant to address problems with policing and police violence. Such efforts took on renewed urgency last May 25, when George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis by a police officer, setting off a record number of protests.

Their approaches differ, but states have addressed issues such as use-of-force limitations; greater independent oversight of police; monitoring and preventing the movement of officers with checkered careers between jurisdictions; and qualified immunity, which generally shields officers from civil litigation.

“We’re seeing policies and laws that are moving from symbolic change to substantive change,” says Katie Ryan of Campaign Zero, which is pushing for police accountability measures. “Adopting a restrictive use-of-force policy has more teeth than just calling for de-escalation training.”

More than a dozen states have imposed new restrictions on use of force. Fifteen states have enacted bans on chokeholds. Although it’s been a full year since Floyd’s death, concerns about policing retain salience, not least because there continue to be examples of unarmed African Americans being killed by officers — including Daunte Wright, who was killed in suburban Minneapolis last month, on the eve of Derek Chauvin’s conviction there for the murder of George Floyd.

“The George Floyd murder and the aftermath of it — and, tragically, a large number of similar cases — has increased the salience of these issues for a large segment of the public and a number of policymakers,” says Marc Levin, chief policy counsel at the Council on Criminal Justice.

New laws to address policing have been enacted in half the states. Along with these successes, however, the police accountability movement has also suffered setbacks. The spike in homicides this year and last, particularly in major cities, has helped police and sheriffs make the case for the importance of their work. “Violent crime is up, shootings are up,” says Betsy Brantner Smith, a spokeswoman for the National Police Association. “I see no legislation in these police reform bills to address criminals.”

Last week, the Los Angeles City Council approved hiring 250 officers, essentially undoing its own work last year in cutting the police budget. On May 7, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed a bill to prevent cities and counties from cutting law enforcement budgets by more than 5 percent over one-year or five-year periods. Texas is also expected to pass legislation that would pre-empt localities from “defunding the police.”

The Missouri Senate passed a bill that would allow citizens to sue their local governments when police budgets are steeply cut, while also creating a law enforcement “bill of rights,” protecting officers from some investigations. The Missouri bill would also stiffen penalties for some protesters.

Numerous other states are considering legislation that would criminalize some forms of protests while protecting drivers who strike those protesters from criminal liability. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis called an anti-protest bill he signed last month “the strongest anti-looting, anti-rioting, pro-law-enforcement piece of legislation in the country.”

And, even as addressing racism and equity issues remains a paramount concern for much of the country, numerous Republican state officials have decried efforts to teach that racism is deeply embedded in American history and culture. Arkansas, Idaho and Oklahoma have banned what is sometimes called critical race theory.

In short, the legislative response to George Floyd’s death, as well as the social justice movement it inspired, has been decidedly mixed.

What Reformers Want

Last week, the Council on Criminal Justice’s Task Force on Policing outlined its top priorities in addressing problems with policing. The group calls for national training standards; a federal decertification registry to keep tabs on officers who engage in misconduct; mandatory reporting and intervention requirements; trauma-informed policing; and increased data collection and transparency.

Other groups have different priorities. Many of the policies sought by reformers are included in the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which was passed by the U.S. House in March, almost exclusively with Democratic support. The bill faces an uncertain future in the Senate, however, which means states and localities for now remain the primary staging ground for addressing law enforcement issues.

Levin says that police groups have largely reconciled themselves to certain changes, such as civilian review boards and bans on chokeholds. But police unions and other groups have fought hard against numerous proposals, weakening language in some places and killing bills outright in others. Abolishing no-knock warrants has proven to be a particularly hard sell.

It appears that legislation in Texas to address decertification standards and electronic records, meant to block officers found guilty of misconduct from being hired at other agencies, won’t make it into law this session, despite support from top leaders in both chambers.

In Missouri, the Legislature has passed what’s been billed as a ban on chokeholds, but the bill allows for exceptions for self-defense or protecting others. The bill also makes it a felony to post identifiable information about police officers. So-called anti-doxxing legislation is now law in Oklahoma and is moving in other states.

“There is current legislation that would actively undo some of the accountability,” says Ryan, the Campaign Zero manager. “Florida and Oklahoma would prevent civilians from recording officers.”

Substantive Changes, Symbolic Fights

Campaign Zero co-founder DeRay Mckesson came to prominence during the protests that followed the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Legislation passed then helped lay the foundation for what’s happening now, he says.

This year’s measures go much further, however. “Post-2014, it was body cameras and implicit bias training,” Mckesson says. “Use of force matters. With implicit bias training, it’s hard to say.”

While there’s clearly momentum behind bills to address policing, law enforcement has pushed back hard. Police unions and sheriffs remain formidable lobbying forces in state capitols. They have played more of an inside game than reform advocates, who have received considerable media attention for their efforts.

“They don’t really care as much about organizing around the court of public opinion,” Mckesson says. “They very much care about the language in these bills, the policies, the structural elements, and they are very much prepared.”

Betsy Brantner Smith of the National Police Association says that American law enforcement is always open to change and improvement. She complains that the current spate of bills do not help in terms of addressing crime.

“These bills are largely political,” she says. “What I’m seeing in a lot of these bills is more emphasis on critical race theory, bias, things that are more political. It’s not popular to say, but the critical race theory training that I have seen and studied, frankly, it’s racist. You can’t sit down a bunch of police officers and tell them that one color of skin is better than another. You can’t sit down white people and tell them they’re bad because they’re white.”

The purpose of critical race theory isn’t to teach that white Americans are inherently racist, but to examine how the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow laws have had ongoing consequences.

Complaints about critical race theory clearly have traction, however. States including Texas are considering bills that would limit teaching about slavery and discrimination. Twenty GOP attorneys general have sent a letter to the Biden administration, calling for federal education grants to be steered away from critical race theory.

There has been substantial movement toward holding police responsible when things go wrong. But the combination of rising levels of violent crime, the instinctive desire of many politicians to “back the blue” and pushback against the idea of teaching about racial disparities has meant that the idea of overhauling how police departments operate is not something that could be universally accomplished in a year, even one as heated as this one has been.
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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