On the evening of May 25 last year, white police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, on a Minneapolis street. The killing sparked the largest racial justice protests in the United States since the civil rights movement and demands for wide-ranging reform – or even abolition – of the police.
Politicians promised unprecedented accountability measures. Some pledged to cut funding for their local police forces and put the money into social programs. Minneapolis City Council vowed to disband the entire department.
On the anniversary of Mr. Floyd’s death, changes have been made. Colorado passed the first law in the country that allows people to sue in cases of police brutality. In Maryland, the legislature repealed a statute that had guaranteed police would only ever be investigated by fellow officers.
But the big, bold promises have largely stalled. A vow by New York’s mayor to slash a billion dollars from the police budget has been whittled down to a fraction of that eye-popping number. In Minneapolis, councillors have backed off their threat to dismantle the force; in December, they voted to trim police spending by about 4.5 per cent.
What’s more, some Republican politicians have played on the fears of their predominantly white base. They have blocked the federal George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in Congress and, at the state level, have passed new voting restrictions that disproportionately affect Black constituents.
Still, police accountability advocates see the past year as a watershed.
Will Smith, a Maryland state senator who helped drive that state’s police reform legislation, compares Mr. Floyd’s murder to the attacks on civil rights protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 1965. Like the events of Bloody Sunday, which gave Congress the impetus to pass the Voting Rights Act, the outcry over Mr. Floyd’s death created the political momentum to effect serious change.
“The scale of reform was only possible in this type of moment. There have been very few times in American history that an event has captured the national mood and that’s translated to actual real policy outcomes,” Mr. Smith said in an interview. “This is a generational event.”
Where reforms have succeeded: Colorado, Maryland and San Francisco
On June 19 last year, Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed a sweeping police reform package. It is the first in the country to end “qualified immunity,” a defence that had allowed officers to avoid being sued for brutality. The law also bans the use of chokeholds, creates an obligation for police to intervene when fellow officers commit brutality, makes it easier to fire officers and bar them from getting jobs with other forces, mandates body-worn cameras and requires authorities to release the footage publicly.
Leslie Herod, a state legislator, had spent almost a year trying to pass a narrower law on the use of force. After Mr. Floyd’s death, and amid daily protests outside the state capitol building, Ms. Herod expanded her bill. Her fellow lawmakers stampeded to sign on and fast-track the legislation.
“Things moved very quickly in Colorado. That was all going on in a moment where there were people in the streets,” said Benjamin Levin, a University of Colorado law professor and expert on criminal justice reform. “It was, at least momentarily, uncomfortable to be a legislator standing against these things.”
In Maryland, meanwhile, legislators repealed the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, a 1970s law that, among other things, had guaranteed police misconduct would only be investigated by other police. In its place, new legislation established local police accountability boards and a state-level unit to investigate cases in which people are killed in police custody.
Lawmakers also made police disciplinary records subject to freedom of information requests, restricted no-knock warrants – which allow police to enter a property without prior notification – and created a new standard for the use of force. And they put restrictions on police buying surplus military equipment such as assault rifles, handguns and armoured vehicles from the Pentagon.
The suite of laws, first proposed by Mr. Smith in June, was passed last month, when the Democratic-controlled legislature overrode a veto by Republican Governor Larry Hogan.
Mr. Smith said curbing the power of police unions was particularly difficult. Other labour groups, usually aligned with Democrats, worried it would set a precedent of politicians interfering in collective bargaining. But the urgency of the moment overrode such tactical political concerns.
“A lot of our traditional allies expressed concern over the precedent,” he said. “We’re still having difficult conversations with our friends in labour.”
And Mr. Smith is vowing to do more. Maryland’s legislation generally tackles questions of accountability after police have been accused of brutality. The next step, he said, is to prevent brutality. Among other things, this could mean moving some responsibilities, such as traffic stops or mental-health calls, out of the purview of police so they can be handled by unarmed civilians.
San Francisco is already doing something like this. Last November, the city created “street crisis response teams” for what they dub “code 800: mentally disturbed person” calls. Where police would once have responded to such calls, they are now handled by a three-person team consisting of a paramedic, a social worker and a peer counsellor – usually someone who has experienced mental illness or addiction.
Other U.S. cities have tried this approach in limited ways, usually with pilot projects that might pair a health care worker with police officers. But San Francisco is the first to attempt to divert all such calls away from police. The program currently has four teams working 12 hours a day, seven days a week. The city plans to add two more teams in July for 24-hour coverage.
But it’s the inclusion of the peer counsellor that makes the program truly unique.
Angelica Almeida, who is managing the program’s implantation for the city’s public-health department, recounted an episode in which a team was called in for a person in distress running around naked in the Tenderloin district. The peer counsellor was able to talk the person down and convince them to put on clothes.
“It’s been really important for us to integrate someone with lived experience,” Ms. Almeida said. “There are people who, because of their past experiences or traumas, are afraid of people in these formal roles. So having a peer on the team makes a huge difference.”
Where change has faltered: Minneapolis, New York and Austin
Minneapolis’s promise to abolish its police department unravelled for two reasons: an unelected body called the Charter Commission and a disagreement at council over what abolition actually meant.
The Minneapolis Police Department and its staffing levels are enshrined in a city charter that can only be amended by referendum. For a proposed amendment to be put to voters, it must first be approved by the Charter Commission, a group appointed by a judge. Last summer, Minneapolis council voted to submit an amendment that would have disbanded the department and transferred its responsibilities to other city agencies, including a new public safety department. But the Charter Commission blocked the amendment from appearing on the ballot.
Even if the referendum had gone ahead, it is not clear what it would have led to. The city did not have a firm plan for what the public safety department would have looked like. One councillor even admitted to The New York Times that he only wanted to abolish the police “in spirit,” not in practice.
A narrower proposal in December to cut the target size of the police force from 888 to 750 officers also failed after Mayor Jacob Frey threatened to veto the city budget over it. In the end, police reform advocates had to settle for a cut of less than US$8-million to a police budget of US$179-million.
Almost as dramatic as Minneapolis’s pledge to scrap its force were the funding cuts promised by other major cities. In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a US$1-billion cut to the NYPD’s operating budget, plus hundreds of millions more to capital spending. In Austin, the city council passed a budget that reduced police spending by almost a third.
But neither move turned out to be nearly as substantial as advertised.
An analysis by New York’s Independent Budget Office found that Mr. de Blasio’s operating cuts actually came to just US$420-million, with the lion’s share meant to come from controlling overtime costs. By February of this year, the IBO told the Gothamist website that police had already blown through the overtime cap, several months before the end of the fiscal year.
And on capital spending, Mr. de Blasio faced a lot of backlash. One project he proposed axing was the 116th Precinct, a new police station in the predominantly Black neighbourhood of Southeast Queens. But residents protested the move, contending that their community has unreasonably long police response times because it is so far from the nearest station. Mr. de Blasio backed down and agreed to fund the 116th.
Austin’s budget turned out to be a similar accounting sleight of hand.
The vast majority of its cuts to police spending came from simply moving some civilian functions – such as the 911 call centre and a forensics lab – out of the police force and into other city departments. So the city was still spending just as much money on these services, just routing it through different agencies.
Still, both cities did direct new money into community services – a central goal of cutting funding to the police.
Austin saved about US$31.5-million by cancelling some planned hiring for the police department and redirected the money to shelters, affordable housing and addiction treatment services. In New York, Mr. de Blasio added US$112-million to the budget for mental-health services.
The backlash, and the federal obstruction
During his first address to Congress as President last month, Joe Biden pleaded with lawmakers to cut a deal to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.
“We need to work together to find a consensus,” he said. “Let’s get it done next month, by the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death.”
The Senate will miss this target. And it may not pass anything on police reform at all.
The two parties are miles apart. The act, drafted by the Democrats, would curb qualified immunity, create a national registry of complaints against police, restrict no-knock warrants and make it easier to prosecute police officers. Last year, Senator Tim Scott proposed rival Republican legislation, which would have encouraged local police forces to create new use-of-force policies – but would not have actually mandated this – and did not touch qualified immunity.
The current version of the George Floyd Act passed the House of Representatives in March – without a single Republican voting in favour. In the Senate, which is divided 50-50, the Republicans can prevent legislation from coming to a vote by filibustering it; under the rules of the upper house, it takes 60 votes to end a filibuster.
The Republicans have become heavily invested in the opposite narrative on police accountability. During last year’s election campaign, then-president Donald Trump denounced racial justice protesters as a “mob” and “thugs” committing “acts of terror.” At the Republican National Convention, the party famously feted a white St. Louis couple who had pointed guns at peaceful protesters outside their mansion.
And in the months since the vote, Republicans across the country have worked to pass laws making it harder to cast a ballot. New legislation in Florida restricts mail-in voting by limiting the number of drop boxes. Georgia, meanwhile, tightened voter identification rules and made it illegal to hand out food or water to voters waiting in line. Mr. Biden has compared such restrictions to Jim Crow. Black voters are typically less likely to have photo identification, and lineups to vote are often longer in predominantly Black areas.
The Republicans are calculating that their base is more afraid of crime than of police brutality. Some Democratic politicians, in retreating on their promises to hold police accountable, appear to be drawing the same conclusion.
The work for accountability advocates now, Prof. Levin contends, is to keep voters onside after the protests have died down and media attention has focused elsewhere.
“The stalling-out shouldn’t surprise us. Fear of crime is an incredible, socially salient concern and is a driver of policy. Interest groups, police and their unions have been very effective as voting blocks. Last summer, a lot of people who may not have been passionate about issues of policing became more familiar and became more invested. One of the challenges is keeping people invested,” he said. “It’s never surprising, unfortunately, to see these efforts fail because they’ve all been pushing back against this very powerful tide of seeing police as solutions to social issues in this country.”
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