In the year since a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, a renewed national focus on police accountability, reform and reimagination has brought about a pivotal moment for activists who have long worked 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 of people marched in the streets to protest his death, demand change and impress upon the world that Black lives matter.
Phrases such as “defund the police” and “qualified immunity” were suddenly injected into the country’s mainstream consciousness as a reckoning on racial injustice permeated businesses, legislatures and dinner table conversations.
But has the movement to reform policing in the United States ignited meaningful change since Floyd’s death? It depends on whom you speak with.
Congress Dragging Its Feet
Then-President Donald Trump signed an executive order within weeks of Floyd’s death that encouraged local police departments to adopt higher standards for using force and expand deescalation trainings, among other reforms. But activists slammed the measure as toothless, since the departments are not required to adopt such policies and are merely incentivized by federal grants to do so.
Around the same time, Democrats in Congress introduced the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which contains a myriad of provisions to combat racial bias and misconduct in law enforcement. The House bill was written by Reps. Karen Bass of California and Jerry Nadler of New York, and its companion legislation in the Senate was drafted by Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Vice President Kamala Harris, then a senator of California.
The House passed the bill on June 8, 2020, but momentum quickly died in the Republican-controlled Senate. It was reintroduced in Congress in February, when it once again passed through the House on a party-line vote.
President Joe Biden in April called on Congress to send the bill to his desk by the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s death, but the Senate had failed to reach an agreement on the proposed legislation as of Tuesday.
“While we are still working through our differences on key issues, we continue to make progress toward a compromise and remain optimistic about the prospects of achieving that goal,” Bass, Booker and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) ― the top negotiators of the bill ― said in a statement Monday.
“This work will be local if it will be impactful. ... The president can’t just magically change the police departments. DeRay Mckesson, civil rights activist
Though many decisions in policing are made at the local level, the bill would introduce some key reforms, including requiring state and local law enforcement agencies that receive federal funding to use body-worn cameras. The proposal would also establish a national registry of police misconduct complaints and disciplinary action, and it would ban the use of chokeholds by federal officers as well as no-knock warrants like the one used in Breonna Taylor’s killing.
One of the biggest ticket items in the bill is the restriction of qualified immunity, a doctrine that shields local and state police officers from being personally liable for violating a person’s constitutional rights unless it can be shown that officer broke “clearly established” law in the process.
As The New York Times noted, the rule creates an extremely difficult burden for a plaintiff: If no other court has previously ruled in a case involving an essentially identical set of facts, the law is determined to be not “clearly established.”
Qualified immunity has become a hot-button issue in the national discourse on police reform, with many activists saying that ending the doctrine is non-negotiable and must be part of whatever national policing legislation is passed.
Others, such as prominent civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson, say there’s too much focus on limiting qualified immunity and not enough on other actionable items for police reform. This is because qualified immunity applies only to civil litigation, protecting officers from having to personally pay restitution to victims’ families, and not criminal proceedings, Mckesson said.
“That is not accountability,” Mckesson told HuffPost. “People think it’s an administrative process or a criminal process. It’s literally not those things.”
At the end of the day, the most meaningful reform will happen at the city, county and state levels.
“This work will be local if it will be impactful,” he said, adding, “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.”
Reform On A Local Level
There are more than 18,000 federal, state, county and local law enforcement agencies across the country ― all with their own established cultures and policing practices. This makes it difficult for national legislation to have significant influence in each jurisdiction, experts say.
“We kind of think about policing in a homogenous way,” said Yasser Payne, an associate professor of sociology and Black American studies at the University of Delaware. “That’s one of the worst ways to think about it.”
“Departments are primarily local,” he continued. “They move closely around local and cultural values ... which makes it difficult at a national level to really appreciate what’s going on.”
In Minneapolis, the battle between city leaders and community members on defunding the police department has become a microcosm of the national debate on police reform. After Floyd’s death, the Minneapolis City Council pledged to dismantle the police department but later walked back that vow.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey has pushed back against 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, including violence prevention and mental health resources. However, under pressure from Frey, the city did not move to cut police staffing.
Several other major cities have defunded or are in the process of defunding their police departments, including Atlanta, Baltimore, New York City and Philadelphia. But the alarming rise in violent crime over the last year, coupled with plunging police recruitment rates, has made some cities reevaluate their efforts.
In response to the 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. But earlier this month, as the murder rate in Los Angeles surged, the city moved to effectively restore that funding.
Ithaca, New York, has drawn national attention for its ambitious plan for police reform. The city adopted a resolution in April that replaces 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 nationwide who say armed police officers shouldn’t be responding to low-level offenses, such as traffic stops, or mental health crises.
In April, Maryland became the first state to repeal its police bill of rights, which gave special protections to police officers because of the nature of their jobs. The legislation also added more civilian oversight to officer misconduct cases.
Some states ― including Connecticut, Minnesota and Vermont ― have adopted “duty to intervene” laws in the wake Floyd’s death. These statutory provisions require an officer to intervene if they observe another officer using excessive force or violating a person’s constitutional rights.
Ganesha Martin, the former director of the Baltimore Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, told HuffPost that police departments must do more to protect officers who intervene in those situations.
“All we talk about is getting rid of bad cops … but nobody is talking about how do we protect, uplift and support the good cops and make an environment where they feel comfortable doing the right thing?” she said.
Martin also highlighted the critical need for updated technology in police departments nationwide.
“What nobody is talking about is that many of our police departments still have ’70s, ’80s technology,” she said. “It’s very hard to pull out basic data for them to report out and be transparent for the community.”
Without tech upgrades, Martin warned, some police departments will undoubtedly fail to file accurate reports using a potential national registry created by the federal government, serving only to further erode trust in those institutions.
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 don’t always lead to the desired impact in practice. For instance, chokeholds were already banned by the New York Police Department when then-officer Daniel Pantaleo used one on Eric Garner during a fatal arrest attempt in 2014.
Martin suggested there should be a national set of standards crafted in concert with police officers and criminal justice activists that serve as a north star for departments across the country. But Tracie Keesee, co-founder and senior vice president of the Center for Policing Equity, said such standards may fail to accomplish much of anything.
“There needs to be something that governs that sort of generalized area of policing, which is fine,” she told HuffPost. “But if [police departments] get to change them ... then what’s the point?”
Any set of national standards should be evidence-based and replicable, if possible, Keesee said.
“There’s evidence out there that certain things work,” such as ending police responses to public health situations, she said.
“The No. 1 thing that still has yet to be answered is, what is the role of police? What is their job? What is their charge?” Keesee added. “It’s really this moment where it will look different in local jurisdictions.”
Ultimately, experts said it remains to be seen which cities and states will serve as models for police reform.
A Shift In Cultural Awareness
As federal police reform languishes in Congress and cities and local police departments grapple with the best path forward, some experts have pointed to the shift in the way most Americans understand police violence and racial injustice as a marker 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 think some people still do, but there’s a much wider understanding of the term and what its implications are now.”
“That’s the work of organizers and folks on the ground trying to make change,” she continued. “There has to be this constant engagement in dialogue and conversations in order to do that work.”
Mckesson, however, dismissed the significance of such a cultural shift.
“Police killed more people in 2020 than every single year of data we have, except for 2018,” he said. “Yes, the conversation is, I guess, different, and there are more people who are talking about this. Just the conversation alone has not translated into less people killed.”
It’s “too early” to judge how far police reform has come since Floyd’s death, Mckesson said, noting that some state legislatures are still working through proposals.
What’s more, Smith said it’s going to take more than a year to tackle the systemic issues entrenched in policing.
“We live in a very complex society and it’s conservative and that has, for all of its existence, neglected a significant portion of its population,” she said. “So I’m not surprised that in one year, you don’t see more than what you’ve seen.”
“I think we’re going in a good direction,” she added. ”But we also need to be sober about what it means to undo almost 400 years, or 300 years, of patterns of injustice. You’re not going to do it in a year.”
Some, like Payne and Martin, question how there can ever be any meaningful reform without addressing the pervasive systems of oppression that create inequities for people of color in health care, education and many other areas.
“There are other systems based on racism and bias that are killing Black and brown lives every day, possibly at a hire rate than policing,” Martin said, adding that working for reform is “going to 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 said. “If we don’t attack those things as critical and as crises like [we do with] the police, then we’re going to continue to be in this situation.”