The unwarranted death of George Floyd, an unarmed African American man, by a Minneapolis, MN, police officer on May 25, 2020, has reignited the debate about race-based police abuse. Protestors argue that the current law enforcement system encourages systemic racism and are calling for nationwide police reform. In addition to changing the laws, activists are also making a strong case for "defunding the police."
While that may conjure up images of a world with no law enforcement, it is not as scary, or even as radical, as it sounds. Defunding the police does not mean getting rid of the country's 18,000 police forces altogether. Rather, it means changing the roles of police officers and shifting how money is allocated. Currently, the US spends about $100 billion on the police force, and those in favor of defunding want to redirect some of the money to fund education, affordable housing, and other social services that help communities grow and thrive.
The appeal of the masses has not fallen on deaf ears. In less than three weeks after the tragic incident, cities and states across the US have passed, or announced, unprecedented police reform laws. Many are also promising to divert some of the funds allocated for law enforcement agencies to social service programs. Here are a few that have been announced thus far:
Minneapolis, the epicenter of the civil unrest, has announced several sweeping police reforms since the mass protests began on May 26, 2020. These include banning neck restraints like chokeholds — which caused Floyd's death — and requiring officers to report unauthorized use of force by their colleagues while still on the scene, regardless of tenure or rank. Additionally, any use of crowd control weapons, such as tear gas, has to be approved by the Minneapolis Chief of Police.
On June 7, 2020, the Minneapolis City Council went one step further by promising to dismantle the city's police department and move to a community-based system of public safety. "Our commitment is to end policing as we know it and to recreate systems of public safety that actually keep us safe," said City Council president Lisa Bender. The officials did not reveal any details on how the process would work, simply stating it would be "through the budget process and other policy decisions."
New York State
On June 12, 2020, New York state officials passed a law mandating police officers to disclose all personnel records used to evaluate performance. They also banned the use of chokeholds, made false, race-based 911 calls a crime, and promised the appointment of a special prosecutor for any officer shooting of an unarmed person. On June 15, 2020, the state's governor Andrew Cuomo, announced that he would "sign additional police reforms." Among them is a requirement for police departments and courts to keep a comprehensive record of all arrest data, including race and ethnicity, and training officers to provide medical and mental health assistance to individuals under arrest or in custody when needed.
San Francisco, CA
The city of San Francisco, CA, already has several measures to keep police abuse in check, such as encouraging officers to use the minimum amount of force, and requiring them to intervene in cases where colleagues are being unnecessarily violent with suspects. However, realizing more needs to be done, on June 15, 2020, Mayor London Breed promised further changes. This will include eliminating the police as first responders for non-criminal situations and changing the department's hiring, promotional, training, and disciplinary systems to highlight its primary mission to protect and defend all life. Breed, who said the reforms would be implemented on an ongoing basis, also promised to invest some of the police funds in marginalized communities.
While state and city reforms will certainly help, a national set of laws on acceptable police behavior will be much more effective in eliminating the issue altogether. On June 16, 2020, President Donald Trump started the process with an executive order that would provide federal incentives to local police departments that obtain an independent evaluation certifying they are meeting the required high standards for the use of force and de-escalation training. The directive also outlined incentives for police departments that hire experts in mental health, addiction, and homelessness to "help officers manage these complex encounters." Additionally, it called for the Justice Department to create and maintain a database of former police officers who have been criminally convicted for on-duty conduct or faced civil judgments for "improper use of force."
Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans are both working on individual plans to enact more precise national reforms. The Democratic police reform bill, entitled Justice in Policing Act, proposes abolishing "qualified immunity," a doctrine which states that police officers can only be charged criminally when the alleged misconduct is intentional, but not when it's reckless. It also recommends banning chokeholds, creating a national database of officers who have committed misconduct, and providing recurring and "frequent" crisis intervention and de-escalation training to all law enforcement personnel.
The JUSTICE (Just and Unifying Solutions to Invigorate Communities Everywhere) Act unveiled by the Republicans on June 17, 2020, proposes curtailing practices, such as chokeholds, by withholding federal funding to departments that allow them or do not submit reports related to them. The legislation also requires law enforcement agencies to report any deaths involving police officers to the FBI for an independent inquiry and suggests a more widespread use of body-worn cameras for officers.
Though both bills address similar issues, the Democrats believe the JUSTICE Act does not go far enough in holding police officers accountable. According to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the bill's "greatest flaw" is that it does not address "qualified immunity." Hopefully, the US lawmakers will be able to reconcile the issues and pass this much-needed legislation soon.
Resources: ABCnews.com, NPR.org, NBCnews.com, Washingtonpost.com, Vox.com