In the year since a Minneapolis
police officer killed George Floyd, there has been a renewed national focus on police accountability, reform, and reimagination, resulting in a watershed moment for activists who have long advocated for change.
Floyd, a Black man, was murdered by police in broad daylight on May 25, 2020, after a shop manager accused him of passing a counterfeit $20 bill; for months, thousands marched in the streets to protest his death
, demand change, and send a message to the world that Black lives matter
As a reckoning with racial injustice permeated businesses, legislatures, and dinner table conversations, phrases like "defund the police
" and "qualified immunity" were suddenly injected into the country's mainstream consciousness.
But, since Floyd's death, has the reform movement in the United States
sparked meaningful change? That depends on who you ask.
Within weeks of Floyd's death, then-President Donald Trump
signed an executive order encouraging local police departments to adopt higher standards for using force and deescalation training, among other reforms. However, activists slammed the measure as toothless, claiming that the departments are not required to adopt such policies and are only incentivized to do so through federal grants.
Around the same time, Democrats
in Congress introduced the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act
, which includes a slew of provisions aimed at combating racial bias and misconduct in law enforcement. The House
bill was written by Reps. Karen Bass
and Jerry Nadler of New York, while the Senate
bill was written by Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey
and Vice President Kamala H. Johnson.
The bill was passed by the House on June 8, 2020, but it quickly died in the Republican-controlled Senate. It was reintroduced in Congress in February, and it passed on a party-line vote once more.
President Joe Biden
asked Congress in April
to send the bill to his desk by the one-year anniversary
of Floyd's death, but the Senate had yet to reach an agreement as of Tuesday.
“While we continue to work
through our differences on key issues, we continue to make progress toward a compromise and remain optimistic about the prospects of achieving that goal,” the bill’s top negotiators, Bass, Booker, and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), said in a statement Monday.
Though many policing decisions are made at the local level, the bill would enact some key reforms, such as requiring state and local law enforcement agencies that receive federal funding to use body-worn cameras; it would also create a national registry of police misconduct complaints and disciplinary action; and it would prohibit federal officers from using chokeholds.
The restriction of qualified immunity, a doctrine that protects local and state police officers from being personally liable for violating a person's constitutional rights unless it can be demonstrated that the officer violated "clearly established" law in the process, is one of the bill's most contentious provisions.
According to The New York Times, the rule imposes an extremely difficult burden on a plaintiff: if no other court has previously ruled in a case involving essentially identical facts, the law is determined to be not “clearly established.”
Qualified immunity has become a contentious issue in the national debate over police reform
, with many activists claiming that repealing the doctrine is unavoidable and must be included in any national policing legislation that is enacted.
Others, such as prominent civil rights
activist DeRay Mckesson, argue that there is too much emphasis on limiting qualified immunity and not enough on other actionable items for police reform, because qualified immunity applies only to civil litigation, protecting officers from having to personally pay restitution to victims' families, and not criminal proceedings.
“That is not accountability,” Mckesson told Stardia. “People
think it is an administrative or criminal process, but it is neither.”
Finally, the most significant reform will occur at the municipal, county, and state levels.
“This work will be local if it is to have an impact,” he said, adding that “the president can’t just magically change the police departments, which was a good thing for us when Trump was president.... People should be infinitely more angry at their mayor, governor
, legislature, and city council. That’s where the power is.”
Local Government Reform
There are over 18,000 police federal, state, county, and local law enforcement agencies across the country, each with its own established culture and policing practices, making it difficult for national legislation to have a significant influence in each jurisdiction, according to experts.
“We tend to think about policing in a homogeneous way,” said Yasser Payne, an associate professor of sociology and Black American studies at the University of Delaware, “and that’s one of the worst ways to think about it.”
“Departments are primarily local,” he continued, “and they revolve around local and cultural values... which makes it difficult to truly appreciate what is going on at a national level.”
The battle in Minneapolis between city leaders and community members over defunding the police department has become a microcosm of the national debate over police reform. Following Floyd's death, the Minneapolis City Council pledged to dismantle the police department, but later backed down.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey has resisted efforts to dismantle or significantly defund the city's police force. The city did vote in December to redirect $8 million of the $179 million police budget to expand other community services, such as violence prevention and mental health
resources, but the city did not reduce police staffing under Frey's pressure.
Several other major cities, including Atlanta
, Baltimore, New York City
, and Philadelphia
, have defunded or are in the process of defunding their police departments; however, the alarming increase in violent crime
over the last year, combined with plummeting police recruitment rates, has caused some cities to reconsider their efforts.
In response to massive racial justice
protests last summer, Los Angeles
Mayor Eric Garcetti authorized a $150 million cut to the city's police funding, a roughly 8% reduction in the total police budget; however, as the murder rate in Los Angeles increased earlier this month, the city moved to effectively restore that funding.
Ithaca, New York, has drawn national attention for its ambitious police reform plan, which includes replacing the Ithaca Police Department with a Department of Public Safety, which includes an unarmed unit of “community solution workers.” The proposal reflects calls from activists and experts across the country who say armed police officers should not be responding to low-leverage incidents.
became the first state in April to repeal its police bill of rights, which provided special protections to officers due to the nature
of their jobs
, as well as increased civilian oversight of officer misconduct cases.
In the aftermath of Floyd's death, several states, including Connecticut
, and Vermont, enacted "duty to intervene" laws, which require officers to intervene if they witness
another officer using excessive force or violating a person's constitutional rights.
Former director of the Baltimore Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice Ganesha Martin told Stardia that police departments must do more to protect officers who intervene in such situations.
“All we talk about is getting rid of bad cops... but no one talks about how we protect, uplift, and support good cops, and create an environment
where they feel comfortable doing the right thing,” she said.
Martin also emphasized the critical need for police departments across the country to upgrade their technology.
“What nobody talks about is that many of our police departments still have technology from the 1970s and 1980s
,” she said, adding that it is difficult to extract basic data for them to report out and be transparent to the community.
Martin warned that without technological upgrades, some police departments will undoubtedly fail to file accurate reports using a potential federal government national registry, eroding trust in those institutions even further.
Christen Smith, an associate professor of anthropology and African and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas
at Austin, cautioned that legislation and policy changes within departments do not always have the desired impact in practice. For example, chokeholds were already prohibited by the New York Police Department
when then-officer Daniel Pantaleo used one on Eric Garner during a faking incident.
Martin proposed a national set of standards developed in collaboration with police officers and criminal justice activists that would serve as a guidepost for departments across the country; however, Tracie Keesee, co-founder and senior vice president of the Center for Policing Equity, believes such standards would be ineffective.
“There needs to be something that governs that sort of generalized area of policing, which is fine,” she told Stardia, adding, “but if [police departments] get to change them... then what’s the point?”
Any set of national standards, according to Keesee, should be evidence-based and, if possible, replicable.
“There is evidence that certain things work,” she said, citing the termination of police responses to public health
“The number one question that has yet to be answered is, what is the role of police? What is their job? What is their charge?” Keesee added. “It is really at this point that it will look different in local jurisdictions.”
Finally, experts say it is unclear which cities and states will serve as models for police reform.
Cultural Sensitivity Is Growing
As federal police reform stalls in Congress and cities and local police departments debate the best way forward, some experts point to a shift in the way most Americans perceive police violence
and racial injustice as a sign of progress.
′′What I have found inspiring is the work that organizers have been able to do to shift the way that we talk about this,” Smith said. “Even a couple years ago, saying ‘white supremacy
’ as opposed to ‘racism
’ was something that people cringed at, and I believe some still do, but there is a much broader understanding of the term and what its implications are now.”
“That is the work of organizers and people on the ground trying to make change,” she continued, “and there has to be this constant engagement in dialogue and conversations to do that work.”
Mckesson, on the other hand, downplayed the significance of such a shift in culture.
“Police killed more people in 2020 than in any other year of data we have, except for 2018,” he said. “Yes, the conversation is, I guess, different, and there are more people talking about it, but just having the conversation has not translated into fewer people killed.”
Mckesson believes it is “too early” to assess how far police reform has progressed since Floyd’s death, noting that some state legislatures are still debating proposals.
Furthermore, Smith stated that addressing the systemic issues endemic in policing would take more than a year.
“We live in a very complex society that is conservative and has, for all of its existence, neglected a significant portion of its population, so I’m not surprised that you don’t see more than what you’ve seen in one year,” she said.
“I think we’re on the right track,” she added, “but we also need to be realistic about what it takes to undo nearly 400 years, or 300 years, of patterns of injustice; it won’t happen in a year.”
Some, such as Payne and Martin, wonder how meaningful reform can be achieved without addressing the pervasive oppressive systems that create inequities for people of color in health care
, and other areas.
“There are other systems based on racism and bias that are killing Black and brown lives every day, possibly at a higher rate than policing,” Martin said, adding that reforming the system will “get messier before it gets better.”
“Police are just the end of the funnel from all of these other issues at the beginning of the funnel,” she explained, adding, “If we don’t attack
those things as critical and as crises like [we do with] the police, we’re going to be in this situation for a long time.”