June 22, 2020
How States are Combatting Police Brutality

The past few weeks in the United States have been painful – for the nation at large, but particularly for the Black community. The combination of a global pandemic that is disproportionately harming and killing Black people and a police system that is disproportionately destroying and ending Black lives has re-opened wounds that never seem to close.

But, history has shown that some of our most difficult moments often lead to some of the greatest transformations in American society.

This past Memorial Day, George Floyd, a Black man who before his death was a musician and a beloved member of the community, was murdered by a police officer in front of dozens of witnesses and cameras. Floyd’s death has led to weeks of protest against police violence across the country. Even as hundreds of thousands of Americans have come out to protest the preponderance of police violence against unarmed civilians, many police officers have proven the legitimacy of these concerns by using excessive force to crack down on these protests.

What happened to George Floyd has happened many times before around the country – so many times that black parents have a different version of “the talk,” during which they teach their children how to survive interactions with the police.

The issues aren’t new, but this moment feels different

Despite the fact that none of this is new, something feels different about this moment. This time, it feels like America is finally paying attention. People who have never protested before or never understood the need for organizations like Black Lives Matter and Campaign Zero are hitting the streets to demand an end to police brutality. This level of sustained outrage and activism from a multi-racial group of Americans has not been seen since the Civil Rights movement, and it is already leading to radical changes in policy and public opinion. This moment is forcing Americans to try and see the disparate impacts of heavy-handed policing on communities of color. Some surveys have shown that support for Black Lives Matter among white Americans has increased more in the 2 weeks following the murder of George Floyd than in the previous 2 years.

Black communities have been sounding the alarm about police brutality and the over-surveillance of majority-Black communities for decades. They have criticized the modern police as a system that maintains White Supremacy by both failing to protect Black people and causing deep and lasting harm to those communities. For many in the Black community, the obvious solution is to dismantle the current system of policing and replace it with something that actually does the thing it purports to do – serve and protect.

This view is becoming increasingly popular, particularly among young people and people of color. Calls to abolish or defund the police have come from activists and criminal justice experts for decades, becoming louder in recent weeks.

While a complete overhaul of policing in the United States will likely take time and an even more drastic change in public opinion, state and local governments across the country are already taking smaller steps to address the issue of police violence.

Eight Police Reforms from Campaign Zero

Campaign Zero, which aims to end police violence in America, has also seen some success with its #8CantWait campaign, which calls for 8 key reforms:

  1. A ban on chokeholds and strangleholds
  2. Renewed focus on de-escalation training
  3. A requirement that police officers give warnings before shooting
  4. A requirement that officers exhaust all other options before resorting to deadly force
  5. A codified duty to intervene for officers who witness other officers employing excessive use of force
  6. A ban on officers shooting at moving vehicles,
  7. Comprehensive reporting of all instances of use of force
  8. The establishment of a force continuum.

The campaign, however, has been criticized for not going far enough and for possibly causing harm to the ultimate goal of police abolition by convincing Americans that tinkering at the edges of the issue will eliminate the problem.

Police reforms are starting at the state and local level

Still, hundreds of state and local governments across the country are already implementing some of the planks of the 8 Can’t Wait Campaign. Here are a few examples at the municipal level:

  • In Louisville, KY, where Breonna Taylor was shot and killed while sleeping in her own home just weeks before her 27th birthday, the City Council has passed Breonna’s Law, which would limit the use of no-knock warrants and require police officers to wear body cameras when executing such warrants.
  • In the nation’s capital, the DC Council unanimously passed emergency legislation that would reduce the power of the police union and require the release of officer names and body camera footage after every police use of force.

Important changes like these are also happening at the state legislative level. States around the country are also pushing new pieces of legislation to address police violence, and renewing support for older legislation that has failed in the past. Here are a few examples:

New York

  • The New York legislature has moved quickly on some police reform bills, some of which had languished in the legislature in recent years. They passed a package of bills entitled the Safer NY Act, all of which have been endorsed by the NY NAACP and the New York Civil Liberties Union. This package included a ban on chokeholds, as well as a repeal of Statute 50-A of New York’s civil rights law, which sealed all disciplinary and complaint records against police officers, providing what many critics defined as “qualified immunity.”
  • This package includes the Police STAT Act, which would require police departments to record demographic information for anyone arrested or stopped for low-level offenses, and for anyone who dies while in police custody.

Colorado

  • In a nearly unanimous show of bipartisanship, the Colorado Senate passed the Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity bill, which required that law enforcement officers wear body cameras, and that all recordings of police incidents be released to the public within 21 days. The bill also requires that the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice maintain and publish annually a report of all uses of force that result in injury, instances when an officer resigned while under investigation, police contact data, and unannounced entry. Clauses within the Colorado bill ban chokeholds, make it easier for residents to sue individual police officers, and require officers to intervene when another officer uses excessive force in their presence.
  • In response to the protests happening across the country, the Colorado bill also bans the use of chemical agents and rubber bullets for purposes of crowd control.
  • While this bill has not yet become law, Democratic lawmakers are confident the bill will pass in the State House.

Massachusetts

  • The Massachusetts House Representatives has announced that it is drafting new bills to help combat racist policing tactics and excessive use of force. One of only 6 states (California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island) that do not have a system for licensing police officers, lawmakers have renewed support to create a system for licensing police officers and standardizing their training. These lawmakers are also calling for a new office to review state agencies’ diversity plans and create a Commission on Structural Racism to study how structural racism in the state has led to more run-ins with law enforcement among its Black residents.
  • They are also drafting a bill to impose limits on police use of force and require an independent investigation of all civilian deaths in police custody.

Illinois

  • State representatives have called for an emergency legislative session to review legislation that would require a special prosecutor to investigate any law enforcement-related death, as well as legislation directing 911 calls related to mental health issues to mental health professionals trained in crisis control and deescalation, rather than to police officers.

Vermont

  • State legislators have revived a previously stalled bill requiring officers to use deadly force only after exhausting all other possible options.

Maryland

  • In Maryland, which saw its own moment of national outrage when Freddie Gray died in police custody in 2015, the State Senate is drafting legislation to mandate implicit bias and de-escalation trainings for all police officers. They are also looking to prohibit the use of chokeholds and strangleholds, require a report after each instance of police use of force, and require any officer who witnesses an excessive use of force by another officer to intervene.
  • Some legislators have also called for transparency bills that would make records of complaints, investigations and disciplinary actions publicly available and subject to review when they relate to “dishonesty, discrimination, the discharge of a firearm, deadly or improper use of force and sexual assault investigations.”

While all of these pieces of legislation represent a shift in the right direction, it should be stressed that for many activists and criminal justice experts, the abolition of our current system of policing, as well as the prison industrial complex, is the ultimate goal of any serious criminal justice reform. While there has been little support among lawmakers for such measures, dismantling and recreating the police has been tried with success in the United States before, most notably in Camden, NJ.

One of the few places to seriously consider abolishing the police today is Minneapolis, the city where George Floyd was killed. Nine members of the Minneapolis City Council, which constitutes a veto-proof majority, have announced plans to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department and replace it with something new.

Not every police department is making radical changes, and the changes will be uneven across the country, but this moment has forced Americans to expand our view of what is possible. Public opinion and public policy are moving at a speed that was previously unimaginable, with new proposals coming out everyday.

This moment might be difficult and frightening, but there is reason to be optimistic that it is also transformative. We are seeing hard-won victories around the country from activists and advocacy groups that have been working to make meaningful reforms to policing for years.

None of these changes are enough, and certainly, none of them will bring back the lives we have already lost. But, many of our leaders across the country are working to meet this moment, and it’s our job to encourage them when they get it right and push them to go even further.