It is now one year after Floyd’s life was taken on May 25, 2020, and while President Biden hasn’t affixed his signature to a bill, there’s reason to hope that “real progress” may be on its way. Democrats in the House and Republicans in the Senate crafted competing police reform bills in the last legislative session that, despite some key differences, had significant overlap. Earlier this year, the House again passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. Now Sen. Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, is working with Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, Rep. Karen Bass of California, Rep. Pete Stauber of Minnesota, and other members on a compromise bill.
Federal policing reform would be a game changer, not only because it would make greater accountability the law of the land, but because it would help propel and protect the significant work local and state lawmakers are doing to pass structural reforms that increase transparency, institute new use-of-force standards, and safeguard civilians’ rights when it comes to police encounters.
Tearing Down the Barriers, State by State
After too many cycles of police brutality, outrage, and promises of reform, policymakers have learned that it isn’t enough to merely try to add new trainings or technologies onto the more than 18,000 individual law enforcement agencies. Instead, lasting change can best be accomplished by tearing down the barriers that have prevented the public from holding officers responsible when they fail to protect and serve. This means removing the bureaucratic systems that elevate law enforcement agencies above democratic accountability and allow them to operate as occupying forces rather than public services.
For example, earlier this year Maryland revoked its Law Enforcement Officer Bill of Rights, or LEOBR, a nearly 50-year-old state law that had prevented communities from effectively scrutinizing police misconduct. Former Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Black specifically blamed the Maryland LEOBR for delaying the investigation into the 2015 death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. More than a dozen other states have their own LEOBRs, which too often have provisions that put officers beyond the reach of civilian oversight.
The fight for change wasn’t easy. The state Legislature had to override Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of the reforms. But now Maryland stands as an example of what oversight should look like, including statewide use-of-force standards, the creation of a new unit in the state attorney general’s office dedicated to investigating all police killings, and replacing discipline boards run by other officers with all-civilian committees. The public will also be able to access officers’ disciplinary records and internal affairs complaints.
Illinois has also passed its own robust reforms, spearheaded by the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, which set statewide use of force standards, create a robust decertification process in response to police misconduct, and mandate new transparency and data collection.
And just this month, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a dozen policing reform bills, working with advocates from groups like the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability to hold police accountable. In his signing statement, Inslee specifically said that the killing of George Floyd had created a “moral mandate” to acknowledge the long-standing inequities in our society and pass these bills.
State-by-state, change is coming.
But tearing down longstanding barriers to transparency and instituting new, civilian-led oversight and decertification rules aren’t the only reforms passing in legislatures. Colorado and New Mexico have acted to limit qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that prevents people from holding state actors accountable in civil court for constitutional violations unless they can point to the same precise set of facts in case law as precedent. For example, under qualified immunity, officers escaped responsibility for unleashing a police dog on a man sitting on the ground with his hands in the air, because the only similar case the plaintiff could reference, which involved a man lying down with his hands at his side, was not sufficiently identical to overcome qualified immunity. In New Mexico and Colorado, that kind of legal absurdity no longer stands as a barrier between the public and the protection of their civil rights.
Municipal governments are also stepping up to reimagine their own individual law enforcement agencies. While states act to remove barriers to police accountability, cities are rethinking fundamental questions about the appropriate role of police in society and the size of the law enforcement footprint, including different response models, coordinating across different first responders, and reconsidering the role of 911.
Cities like Philadelphia, Dallas, Denver, and Atlanta are all experimenting with co-responder models or mobile crisis teams in response to calls for help from the public. While some political opponents try to frame these reforms as anti-law enforcement, advocacy groups led by police such as Law Enforcement Action Partnership are on the front lines of promoting community responder models that don’t always send armed police to every 911 call. After all, research has found that only 21.5% of calls to 911 reported a crime, and just 0.6% reported a violent crime.
The federal government has even stepped up to help fund these new kinds of responses. The American Rescue Plan of 2021 included $1 billion for local programs that involve community-based, non-police crisis responses to people experiencing a mental health issue or substance use disorder.
Advocacy groups have also built on this momentum for policing reform to push for responses to violent crime — including the current spike in homicides — with non-police responses. Fund Peace Coalition and the Invest in Us Coalition are helping to advance efforts to reduce violence by supporting community intervention programs across the country. And earlier this year the Biden-Harris administration announced several groundbreaking investments in community-based violence prevention — including calling on Congress to invest $5 billion over eight years to support evidence-based community violence programs.
But there is still further to go. More federal support is needed for these alternative policing models. The Senate still hasn’t passed its promised policing reform bill. At the state level, the NSCL database identifies more than 1,400 policing reform bills pending in legislatures.
What To Watch
While states are still working to tear down those long-standing barriers to accountability, two specific bills have caught my attention — one in a blue state and one in a red state.
In California, the Legislature is debating police decertification in Senate Bill 2. Without this bill, California will remain one of only four states that lacks a process for revoking an individual’s license to serve as a law enforcement officer (Hawaii, Rhode Island, and New Jersey are the others). California police can be fired for misconduct, but little stops them from simply applying for a job at a different department unless they’re convicted of a felony or a few other narrow circumstances. In fact, an investigation by the Mercury News found that more than 600 officers were convicted of a crime between 2009 and 2019 and nearly 20 percent still had a job in law enforcement after their sentencing.
One officer was investigated in an FBI child pornography probe and merely changed departments.
For the sake of public trust and community safety, law enforcement officials who can’t protect and serve the public should not be allowed to carry a badge and a gun.
And in Texas, lawmakers are considering House Bill 830 to prohibit police from arresting people for fine-only misdemeanors. The call for this reform was sparked by the 2015 death of Sandra Bland in a Texas jail cell. She had been arrested and locked up after changing lanes without a turn signal and then being less than courteous — a right protected by the First Amendment — to the arresting officer.
Bland’s death was supposed to change things. A video of Texas Department of Public Safety trooper Brian Encinia threatening to “light up” Bland with his stun gun was supposed to shock a nation into action.
The change never came. Even HB 830 is a leftover bill that has been repeatedly proposed and knocked down since 2017.
How many more years have to pass until these reforms — real, systemic changes — are enshrined in our laws?
How long until all Americans can see red and blue lights in their rearview mirror without fearing an itchy trigger finger on an electric taser or loaded gun?
How many more years have to pass until Gianna Floyd can truly say that her daddy changed the world?
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