The death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American father of five, under the knee of a Minnesota police officer late last month has unleashed a seismic shift in the conversation about race and police. Across the United States – and increasingly the world – cities are engulfed in protests that raise fresh questions about what has been seen, until now, as the largely intractable problem of how to rid the criminal justice system of bias against communities of colour.
Protests in more than 140 cities across the U.S. have given new momentum to efforts to enact fundamental reforms at the local level. Mayors, governors and state legislators are suddenly rushing to propose police reforms: from better data about the prevalence of police misconduct, to calls for greater civilian oversight of law enforcement agencies, to efforts to reform the police disciplinary process.
In Canada, where Black and Indigenous communities have long called for measures such as defunding police, the protests and recent tragedies have helped their proposals gain mainstream traction in recent days. In a sign of the shifting attitudes, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attended an anti-racism rally on Parliament Hill yesterday.
Just two days after Mr. Floyd was killed, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a Ukrainian-Afro-Indigenous woman who was in mental distress, fell to her death from a 24th-floor balcony in the presence of several Toronto police officers. This past week, police in New Brunswick shot and killed Chantel Moore, a woman from the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, during a wellness check, while an RCMP officer was caught on video striking an Inuk man in Nunavut with his vehicle.
The solutions are not always easy and several are destined to spark political battles. At the same time, recurring violent clashes between police and protesters threaten to undermine legitimate demands for substantive change. But for many Black leaders who have seen reform efforts stall for years – or seen a single policy changed when a comprehensive overhaul is needed – the civil unrest that has rocked the country over the past week offers a rare opportunity for real change.
“There’s a renewed call and, I think, a renewed political will to do some of these recommendations that have been before the general assembly for years,” said Will Smith, a Democratic state senator from Maryland who this week introduced a package of accountability reforms, several of which have been previously proposed and abandoned.
Some of the proposals offer relatively easy fixes, such as better data collection about police incidents, or laws that would require all police officers in a state to wear body cameras. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is among those calling for a ban on neck restraints similar to the one that former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin used when he pressed his knee into Mr. Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. Many police departments already forbid such techniques, but they were still in use by 18 per cent of local police departments in the U.S. as of 2013, the most recent year that federal statistics are available.
But activists and policing experts say such measures, while helpful, often fall short of the broader reforms needed to meaningfully reduce the kind of police misconduct that damages community trust.
“We have this pick-and-choose type of mentality where we say we can do just this and that’s enough,” said Ed Chung, a former federal prosecutor and senior Obama administration Justice official now with the Center for American Progress. “The hard things are really the ones that are usually left off the table in the name of police reform."
One idea that has steadily been gaining traction among both police and lawmakers in Democratic-run states is an effort to reduce penalties for minor non-violent felonies such as some property crimes and drug possession. Police arrested Mr. Floyd after a teenage clerk at a deli believed he had paid for cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. In 2014, Eric Garner died after a New York police officer put the African-American man in a chokehold while investigating him for selling illegal cigarettes.
Police departments generally support allowing such petty crimes to be handled with citations rather than arrests because they can prevent encounters from escalating into violence and ultimately reduce the number of people sent to jail, according to Ronal Serpas, a former police chief in New Orleans, Nashville and Washington State.
California voters passed a 2014 ballot measure that reduced a handful of non-violent felonies, including petty theft and drug possession, to misdemeanours. A study from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice released in May found that the change, coupled with other reform efforts to reduce prison sentences for minor crimes, had lowered arrests by 20 per cent.
Harder to achieve, but necessary experts say, are proposals to reform the police disciplinary system. In Colorado, lawmakers introduced a package of laws this week that would make it more difficult for police services to transfer officers with troubling disciplinary histories to other police departments.
Some protesters argue that stricter disciplinary action may have prevented Mr. Floyd’s death. Staff records released by the Minneapolis Police Department showed Mr. Chauvin, who faces charges of second-degree murder, had been the subject of at least 17 internal affairs investigations over his 20-year career, although he was disciplined only once.
The lack of follow-up on complaints against police can have devastating consequences that destroy trust in community. Michael West knows first-hand.
One night seven years ago, the 34-year-old hospital project manager was arriving home in a gated apartment complex in Largo, Md., a suburb of Washington, when a police cruiser pulled up behind his car and shone its overhead light at him. After parking and getting out, the officer told Mr. West, who is Black, that he looked “suspicious." When Mr. West requested the officer’s badge number, the policeman became aggressive, saying “I can do whatever I want.” Only the intervention of another officer prevented the situation from escalating, he says. The second cop gave Mr. West the first officer’s name: Jenchesky Santiago. Mr. West called the Prince George’s County Police Department that night. He was told that his complaint was being recorded, he said, but he never heard anything back.
The following year, Mr. Santiago was involved in a similar incident, when he pointed a gun at the head of another Black man, William Cunningham, who he had stopped outside Mr. Cunningham’s home. That episode was caught on camera and Mr. Santiago was ultimately sentenced to five years in prison for assault and misconduct in office. “It could have been me,” Mr. West said as he marched in an anti-police brutality protest in Washington. Much like Mr. Chauvin, Mr. Santiago was a policeman with a pattern of behaviour that did not get him kicked off the force until he was caught on camera.
Christina Cotterman, a spokeswoman for Prince George’s County Police, said the force’s Internal Affairs Division has no record of Mr. West’s complaint. The force has an internal system for flagging any officer with two or more complaints against them in a 30-day period, or at least two total use of force complaints, she said. In those cases, internal affairs notifies the officer’s commander. Complaints against Prince George’s County Police are investigated by the police themselves; they are then reviewed by a civilian oversight panel which can make recommendations.
In Maryland, police officers are protected by a Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which mandates that investigations of police misconduct must typically be done only by other police officers.
Mr. Santiago remains in prison. His lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.
The incident and the lack of any follow-up from police has left a lasting scar. “I’ve never been in any trouble in my life,” Mr. West said. “That shows me it’s a systemic problem. It’s a problem of race in America.”
Even when police departments do try to discipline officers, the process can make it difficult for police chiefs to fire or reprimand employees for serious misconduct, said Prof. Serpas, the former police chief who is now a professor in the criminology and justice department at Loyola University in New Orleans.
He believes that negotiations around disciplinary proceedings need to be removed from the collective bargaining process between city governments and police unions. Findings of misconduct are also routinely overturned or reduced by courts and arbitrators.
"That's corrosive in the chain of command, because then it turns into police officers being told by their [union] representatives: you didn't do anything wrong, we beat them,” he said. “Then they go back into the culture and say: you see? We beat them."
Yet many Democrats in the state legislature are reluctant to anger police unions by tampering with collective agreements through legislation, said Mr. Smith, the Maryland state senator.
“What we’d be doing is going in and removing some of those collectively bargained-for agreements, which is controversial,” he said. “Some union groups that wouldn’t be happy have traditionally been allies with the Democratic Party. This will always be an uncomfortable discussion.”
While several jurisdictions in Maryland, including Baltimore along with Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, adjacent to Washington, have civilian boards that review police complaints, they can only make recommendations and lack the power to perform investigations.
“It doesn’t have much teeth,” he said. “None of it is the real type of participatory oversight that you would think in your mind’s eye.”
Prof. Serpas sees a role for insurance companies in incentivizing good behaviour. Smaller police departments often band together to collectively negotiate lower rates on liability insurance, giving the companies an opportunity to offer police departments discounts on premiums and deductibles in exchange for stricter penalties for misconduct.
Police departments should also encourage officers to report misconduct that they’ve witnessed among their co-workers by threatening them with severe penalties for staying silent. “You’ve got to create these safety nets so that officers can talk,” he said. "We know that when officers feel empowered and protected by policy to report misconduct, they’re more likely to report misconduct.”
Mr. Smith, the Maryland state senator, would like to go even further. His proposed reforms would allow the public to access police misconduct complaints and disciplinary records, create a special unit within the state attorney-general’s office to investigate and prosecute accusations of criminal behaviour against police, and remove a current law that stipulates police can only be investigated by other police officers.
Making complaints and disciplinary records subject to freedom of information requests would allow the public to identify problem officers or trends, he said. “The personnel records would be the biggest sea change, because you could help identify those patterns, some of the excessive force,” Mr. Smith said.
But even cities that have adopted police accountability measures still show serious shortcomings.
Washington, for instance, has a civilian Office of Police Complaints that investigates misconduct accusations against the city’s Metropolitan Police Department. City legislation in 2016 strengthened that office by having police forward complaints they receive to the independent agency. The same law also required police to collect data on its stop and frisk programs, where officers would stop and question individuals on the street.
But Washington only released its stop and frisk data after the local American Civil Liberties Union took the city to court. What the data shows is troubling: In a nearly six-month period last year, 72 per cent of all police stops involved Black people, who make up 46 per cent of the city’s population.
Police accountability advocates have called for Metro police to end stop and frisk altogether. The Stop Police Terror Project DC has also advocated for the Office of Police Complaints to become stronger. Currently, it does not have the power to impose disciplinary actions on officers; it can only rule on whether misconduct occurred, with the specific discipline imposed by the police chief.
Skepticism among lawmakers that police departments have the the will to make changes have prompted some mayor and city officials to propose slashing the budgets of police.
Minneapolis city council voted Friday on a package of laws that would ban neck restraints and require more transparency around disciplinary decisions, although some councillors have vowed to get rid of the police department entirely. “We are going to dismantle the Minneapolis Police department,” council member Jeremiah Ellison said on Twitter Thursday.
New York City’s Comptroller Scott Stringer has called for the city to slash its police budget by US$1.1-billion. In Los Angeles, a city with a history of protests against racial discrimination by police, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced he planned to slash the police budget by as much as $150-million and shift the funding to services in communities of colour “so we can invest in jobs, in education and healing.”
Such proposals are gaining traction in Canada. “Rather than giving more funding to the police and taking funding away from other places where we could be providing better safety and security services to our cities, we should be providing less,” says Sandy Hudson, one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter Toronto.
Perhaps surprising for a former police chief, Prof. Serpas supports efforts to cut police budgets, so long as the money is used to fund programs that empower mental health or drug and addiction crisis workers to respond to calls, with police officers as backup. "Police agencies, by and large, would love to be extracted from the business that they don’t have any expertise in,” he said.
Many of the lawmakers, activists and policing experts say they’re optimistic that the protests will lead to lasting reforms.
Attending a protest this week outside the White House, William Haynes, a 40-year-old warehouse worker from Alexandria, Va., felt the change in the air. Mr. Haynes was in elementary school when he first remembers a police officer pointing a gun at him. His grandmother had been the victim of identity theft, and someone had used her identity to commit fraud. When police came to her home to investigate, they burst in with a SWAT team, he said.
“That is how we grew up – police putting guns to our heads,” he told The Globe and Mail.
The broad, multiracial coalition that has come together in the current uprising has given him hope.
“People are fed up. What we’re definitely experiencing is a monumental part of history,” he said. “Absolutely it feels different, and I think people need to wake up.”
With a report from Dakshana Bascaramurty