During his recent State of the Union address, President Joe Biden made clear where he comes down on the “defund the police” debate that has roiled Democratic politics since George Floyd was murdered in the summer of 2020.
“The answer is not to defund the police. It is to fund the police. Fund them. Fund Them,” Biden said. “Fund them with resources and training. Resources and training they need to protect their communities.”
Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi stood and clapped in support. The rest of the room followed.
Biden never supported defunding the police, nor did the vast majority of Democrats in Congress, despite activists’ demands. But Biden did pledge a wide range of policing reforms when he was running for president in 2020, particularly after Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis.
Many of those reforms were packaged into the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, but that died an ignominious death in the Senate last year. In the face of strong Republican opposition, it couldn’t attract enough support to clear the 60-vote filibuster.
Nevertheless, Biden could take a suite of actions through executive orders – he could ban no-knock warrants, qualified immunity, officers shooting into moving vehicles, and chokeholds. It is also unclear how the reforms will differ from the Department of Justice imposing restrictions on chokeholds and no-knock warrants last year. Many people hoped Biden would have announced those actions already: CNBC reported in mid-January that he was planning to sign some executive orders on policing “in the run-up to his State of the Union Address on March 1.”
That didn’t happen. And a White House official told HuffPost there is no timeline for any further reform. The official added that the administration believes addressing crime directly creates “the political space” to bring about police reform and prevents any “demagoguing by Republicans” who oppose any police reform efforts.
While Washington has largely moved on, the families of people who died because of police violence have been left to carry the burden. Over the past few months, HuffPost spoke with three of them about their loss, and what it was like to see last year’s hope produce no tangible national-level reforms.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act passed the House of Representatives on March 3 last year, not long after the new Congress was sworn in. But after long negotiations, Democrats and Republicans could not come to an agreement. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) described it as a “squandered” opportunity. Biden blamed the bill’s collapse on Republicans, who he said couldn’t even agree to modest policing reform.
It still stings Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), who led negotiations on the bill. “What I would say is, one, that I am deeply sorry that we did not succeed, and two, that we will continue trying until we do succeed,” Bass told HuffPost in October.
Bass and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) say there may be other avenues for federal-level reform through what Bass described as a “two-prong strategy” that would require the White House to use the “maximum power” it has.
But in February, Booker told HuffPost he was unsure when the White House might act.
“Not yet; we saw the documents, but that was very early in the process, and I think it is something they are still working on,” Booker said.
When asked how soon any action was coming, he replied, “I can’t speak for them.”
Anthony Scott has to live with his brother’s killing for the rest of his life.
Walter Scott, a Black man in South Carolina, was fatally shot by police officer Michael Slager, who pulled Scott over in April 2015 because of a broken tail light. Slager claimed that Scott had rushed him after stealing his Taser, but an autopsy revealed that Scott had been shot in the back five times. Infamous cell phone video captured the confrontation.
Slager went on trial in state court, but a hung jury produced a mistrial. He later pleaded guilty to federal charges that he violated Scott’s civil rights and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
“I still have trauma and I still have PTSD from the case,” Anthony Scott told HuffPost. “It is like the fact that it never goes away. And even though you get that form of justice in the federal part, there was never anything solved on the state side.”
Beyond the pursuit of justice for Slager, Scott sees problems with the larger struggle against police violence.
He watched anxiously last year after the George Floyd Act died in Congress.
“It is something our senator should have continued to push and made it happen. It should have been made into law,” he said. “But when we stop protesting, stop doing things that we do to show them that we are upset, they think we will be OK and they go away again until the next killing happens.”
Scott was reminded of how Black men are policed in his state in April 2021 after Jamal Sutherland died while being arrested on a misdemeanor charge. Jail deputies in Charleston, South Carolina, had pepper-sprayed and repeatedly struck him with a stun gun while they attempted to handcuff him.
Sutherland died in January 2021, but nothing surfaced about the incident until months later. And while a prosecutor said “grave mistakes” were made, none of the officers involved were charged.
The agony has not stopped for Scott since his brother’s death.
“We still have people in the city of Charleston that are still dying. We still have people across the nation that are still dying. There is still a problem,” he said. “The system is broken. Until then, there will be another George Floyd, there will be another Walter Scott.”
Tamika Palmer, the mother of Breonna Taylor, knows what it’s like to be failed by her government.
Taylor was killed when three white Louisville police officers forced themselves into her apartment while executing a warrant. She and her boyfriend were awakened and her boyfriend fired a warning shot, unaware who was entering their home until police rammed their way inside. One shot hit an officer, Jonathan Mattingly, who survived.
Officers immediately returned 32 shots. Six hit Taylor, killing her.
Police never searched the home. Taylor’s boyfriend was charged with assault and attempted murder of an officer, but the charges were later dismissed on prejudice. Brett Hankinson, one of the officers involved, was fired for shooting through a window and patio door of Taylor’s apartment.
Hankinson was indicted by a grand jury on three counts of wanton endangerment and acquitted last week. No officer was charged in Taylor’s killing.
After her daughter’s death, Palmer was still on the activist scene, supporting other families whose loved ones were killed by police. She watched the death of legislative reform in Washington with dismay.
“The lack of passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is but another example of the false promises made by politicians saying what they need to get elected,” Palmer told HuffPost in a statement.
She added, though, that she plans to stay engaged in the battle for reform. “We have to ensure that we are voting for people who are willing to pass meaningful legislation. This means we have to ask tough questions of candidates and vote like our lives depend on them — because they do,” she said.
A Moderate Step
Protesters took over the streets of the country last year in the name of Black Lives Matter. The George Floyd bills that marked a legislative response to those cries against injustice were, if anything, inadequate — but still too radical for Congress.
“It was a very moderate step, and the fact that even the act could not get Republican support, I think it speaks volumes for how unlikely it is that at the federal level, we will get any sort of reform or transformation that will actually save people’s lives,” Tahir Duckett, a civil rights attorney and executive director of the Center for Innovations in Community Safety at Georgetown University, told HuffPost.
“I think Congress has failed these Black families, starting decades ago by treating every one of our social ills as something that should be policed or a social ill that we should incarcerate our way out. That is where Congress has failed these families.”
“Anytime there is a bill that would benefit the Black community, there is always a pause. There is always a halt.”
Latoya Holley, whose brother died at the hands of police in Maryland in 2018, agreed. She told HuffPost, “I think [Congress’] decisions are based on public opinion. Anytime there is a bill that would benefit the Black community, there is always a pause. There is always a halt.”
Her brother Anton Black was 19 when a group of police officers pinned him down, which led to his death. He was unarmed when he was killed.
A medical examiner in Maryland ruled that Black had experienced “sudden cardiac death” as three officers wrestled him to the ground in Greensboro, Maryland. Body camera footage from one of the officers showed that police had held Black down for more than five minutes and handcuffed him.
Black’s mother, who was nearby, was calling her son’s name.
The family filed a wrongful death lawsuit in December 2019 alleging that police had used excessive force, and Maryland’s former medical examiner, David Fowler, attempted to cover up the cops’ responsibility for Black’s death.
With the George Floyd legislation’s failure, Holley doubts America can escape its long-documented past, but she wants people to keep trying.
“I think there is a long history here in America that they don’t want to let go and they don’t want change. And hopefully, the people that do will be louder than the ones that don’t,” she said.
Biden’s approach to crime and policing is not new. He sponsored the 1994 crime bill and has long-held views on how he thinks communities should be made safe in America. His administration never planned to defund police officers.
Biden will not “shy away” from expressing disagreement with Republican or Democratic proposals, officials said.
“The President, along with the overwhelming majority of Americans, knows that we can and must have a criminal justice system that both protects public safety and upholds our founding ideals of equal treatment under the law. In fact, those two goals go hand-in-hand,” Michael Gwin, a Biden spokesperson, told HuffPost.
“That’s why the President has implemented a comprehensive plan to combat crime by getting guns off the streets and investing in community-oriented policing and proven community anti-violence programs. And that’s why the President continues to advocate for reforms for our policing system after the failure of bipartisan negotiations in Congress.”
The administration has had “extensive consultations” with civil rights groups like the NAACP, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the National Action Network and many others, including families of “unlawful” police violence, officials said.
Still, nothing tangible has surfaced since mass demonstrations dominated America’s major cities two years ago. And policing experts are skeptical of how the administration will address crime and policing.
Alec Karakatsanis, founder and executive director of the Civil Rights Corps, says the administration has been talking about things that have “no chance” of changing the way police operate in America. The push for more technology and increased funding to police departments will not address the demands of activists or families of police violence victims. It will just allow the same issues to continue.
Karakatsanis described the policing reforms being discussed in Washington as “minuscule” and said there is little to no evidence that adding more police has reduced crime.
“The whole discussion of police reform is just missing the point,” Karakatsanis said.
“So the right does not want to consider any of the reforms, but the reforms themselves are not designed to change anything significant about policing as a tool for oppressing the poor and Black and brown communities.”