State Watch

States race to reform police practices in wake of George Floyd’s death

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State legislators have introduced dozens of measures to address police violence amid nationwide protests over the deaths of unarmed African Americans, an almost unprecedented race to reform law enforcement practices after years of stagnation.

Legislatures in 19 states and the District of Columbia have introduced more than 160 bills in the three and a half weeks since the killing of George Floyd, whose death after a Minneapolis police officer was videotaped kneeling on his neck led to murder charges and became the catalyst for protests in hundreds of cities.

“There hasn’t been the political will to have some of those really uncomfortable and difficult discussions around police reform,” said Maryland state Sen. Will Smith (D). “The George Floyd murder ignited a movement and has given a lot of folks around the country the political will and the moment to make real reform and real systemic change.”

Many of the bills up for debate are broad efforts to overhaul police department procedures to hold officers to greater account. Others are more narrowly targeted, banning chokeholds or the use of tear gas and rubber bullets during protests. Still more implement new training regimes meant to cut down on the number of police interactions that end violently.

Legislators in Minnesota have introduced 53 different measures, including bills to ban so-called warrior-style training and weapons. The legislature is also considering legislation that would require law enforcement officials to receive training for dealing with people on the Autism spectrum, training that few police departments provide.

In New York, where protests have led to hundreds of complaints against police officers for using excessive force, legislators have introduced 56 bills to overhaul law enforcement practices. 

Only two weeks after Floyd’s death, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed legislation creating a new Office of Special Investigation to investigate and prosecute alleged criminal offenses committed by a law enforcement officer. Cuomo signed another bill that created the new crime of strangulation that would be added to a potential murder charge.

In Pennsylvania, members of the state’s Legislative Black Caucus staged a symbolic takeover of the speaker’s rostrum in the state House Chamber to raise awareness of police brutality.

“There’s such a sense of urgency for us to address these issues,” said state Rep. Jordan Harris, the Democratic whip. “For black and brown elected officials, this has been an issue that we have been championing for years and wanting to address for a while.”

The House Judiciary Committee in Harrisburg, Pa., advanced two bills earlier this week, one requiring mental health evaluations for officers and another creating a statewide database of complaints against law enforcement officials.

In an era of hyper polarization, the legislation reforming police agencies has been remarkably bipartisan. Several bills have passed on unanimous or almost unanimous votes.

“The outpouring of peaceful protests, the concern about this issue is substantial,” said Texas state Rep. James White (R), who heads the House committee on corrections in his state. “This is usually a policy lane where you can have a lot of bipartisanship, and no one believes that their values are compromised.”

The D.C. City Council has sent a package of police reforms to Mayor Muriel Bowser (D). Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) has signed a bill banning chokeholds. Smith said Maryland would look at comprehensive reforms that include a police oversight board and prohibitions on tactics like chokeholds.

But other bills have failed: The Kansas legislature killed a bill this month that would have banned law enforcement agencies from hiring officers with a history of misconduct allegations. It also voted down a resolution condemning acts of police brutality and excessive force. In Louisiana, a bill to end qualified immunity for law enforcement officers failed in committee.

The Louisiana legislature did pass a resolution commending four black teenagers who organized a peaceful protest march to the state capitol in Baton Rouge. 

Some Republican-controlled states have passed resolutions focused more on instances of violence within largely peaceful protests. Michigan legislators adopted a measure condemning violence and extremist groups. The state is also considering a measure to ban chokeholds.

Democratic-controlled cities have moved to slash police budgets. Baltimore’s city council cut $22 million from its police department. Philadelphia paused some planned spending increases and made other cuts to its department, totaling about $33 million. Portland, Ore., officials slashed the police department’s budget by $16 million.

Acts of police brutality have spawned some limited legislative reforms in the past. Michael Hough, a Republican state senator in Maryland, helped pass some police and criminal justice reforms in 2016, after a Baltimore man named Freddie Gray died in police custody.

What is different now, though, is the breadth of the anger at Floyd’s death.

“Almost every state is going to be tackling this because it’s such a huge issue now,” Hough said. “There is common ground there, but it’s difficult. When you talk about issues of race and criminal justice reform, it’s difficult.”

Many state legislatures have already adjourned for the year, and don’t plan to return until after November’s elections. Even in those states, legislators are busy planning police overhauls to come. In Texas, White has been participating in virtual town hall meetings with fellow members of the Legislative Black Caucus and constituents around the state. He said members are already contemplating legislation to introduce when they return to Austin for their biennial session in January.

As a conservative, White said he wanted to see reforms that reined in the government’s authority to detain law-abiding citizens.

“Any time the government believes that they need to limit your freedom, even if it’s a five minute detainment on the side of the road for a Class C driving ticket, we want to make sure that that stop is constitutional and lawful,” White said in an interview Thursday. “People understand that we need law enforcement. It doesn’t make a hill of beans if James White goes up there and passes 8,000 bills if there’s nobody there to enforce them.”


Tags Andrew Cuomo D.C. George Floyd protests Iowa New York Pennsylvania police reform Washington
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