After George Floyd, how much has changed?
A year after George Floyd was killed by Derek Chauvin, one verdict is in: Chauvin was found guilty in April of murder.
The question of how much the nation has changed in the wake of the 42-year-old Black man’s death, which sparked a national outcry, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and calls for police reform and racial justice in nearly every area of American life, is much more difficult to answer.
“I think the verdict is still out on that,” Amara Enyia, policy and research coordinator for the Movement for Black Lives, told The Hill.
“What we know for sure is that the appetite for substantive change is there.”
A year after the shocking videotape showing Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes first came to national attention, Congress is on the edge of passing police reform legislation that bears Floyd’s name.
There is a new president in office who represents a sea of change from the Trump era, and there are new efforts underway to address issues of racial inequality as it relates to the economy, health care and jobs, among other issues.
Yet there are also new police killings of Black men and women on a regular basis, and Chauvin’s conviction remains a rarity. The coronavirus pandemic which is only now lifting also shed light on the vast inequalities along racial lines in America.
The Washington Post’s fatal force database, established in 2015, shows that roughly 1,000 people in the country are fatally shot by law enforcement every year, with Black people being shot and killed by police at twice the rate of white people.
“We know that the system doesn’t work, otherwise we wouldn’t be here,” said Enyia, who is also a former Chicago mayoral candidate.
“The fact that it took a global uprising and massive pressure at all levels, and from all corners of this country, to get a conviction shows how the system works against the interests of people, and in particular Black people.”
Police reform has some momentum
One tangible legacy of the last year is the possibility that Congress will get a police reform bill to President Biden’s desk.
The idea of police reform isn’t partisan and has received a groundswell of public support since Floyd’s killing. Sixty percent of respondents from an April ABC-Washington Post poll said that the government should do more to “hold police accountable for mistreatment of Black people.”
In a similarly recent Vox-Data for Progress poll of likely voters, more than 70 percent either “somewhat” or “strongly” supported a slew of reforms, including prohibiting racial profiling and chokeholds, while establishing universal policing standards and expanded data collection.
“There’s very few people I would say that would argue against having police reform or modernization of policing policies,” Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) told The Hill.
While Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) introduced the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in June, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) introduced his own police reform bill, the Justice Act. The two bills, neither of which were approved in the last session of Congress, overlapped on many issues, paving the way for this session of Congress to pass a substantial bipartisan reform bill.
That said, there are real differences between the bills and the two parties on some issues, chiefly police liability and accountability, that raise doubts about the bill’s passage.
Democrats and civil rights advocates want to see qualified immunity — the powerful legal doctrine that shields government officials like police officers from liability in civil suits unless it can be proven that they explicitly violated someone’s constitutional rights — axed, arguing that it’s a crucial first step in holding police officers accountable.
They also want to lower the standard that law enforcement personnel must reach to be federally charged with violating a person’s civil rights, colloquially known as the “color of law” statute.
Currently, the pair of provisions make both the civil and criminal prosecution of police officers a herculean task. Even in criminal police misconduct cases, the chances of trial are slim, a jury conviction even rarer.
Data on police misconduct isn’t standardized and somewhat hard to come by; the Henry A. Wallace Police Crime Database, created by Philip M. Stinson — a Bowling Green State University professor and former cop — is arguably the best source.
Stinson and his team found that from 2005 to June 2019, 104 nonfederal sworn law enforcement officers in the U.S. were “arrested for murder or manslaughter resulting from an on-duty shooting,” but as of mid-2019, only 35 had been convicted of a crime. Only four were convicted of murder.
“I was a former mayor, and I know that my police [ran] toward danger and toward hostile situations,” Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), the Congressional Black Caucus’s second vice chair, told The Hill.
“We do equip them with guns and teach them how to restrain and apprehend and so there’s a certain part of immunity that should be there, but absolute immunity? Absolutely not.”
However, Donalds describes eliminating qualified immunity as a “non-starter,” a view that many conservatives share.
Doing away with it, Donalds argued, would deter people from joining police departments and prompt existing officers to leave, leaving less officers in communities.
“Less officers on the street equals more crime in our communities,” Donalds, one of three Black Republicans in Congress, said. “Having grown up in the inner city of Brooklyn, N.Y., I will tell you, having less cops on the street is a bad idea.”
Qualified immunity and the “color of law” statute notwithstanding, many aspects of policing would be changed at a national level if the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act becomes law.
Racial profiling at every level of law enforcement would be prohibited; chokeholds, carotid holds and no-knock warrants would be banned at the federal level; qualified immunity for officers would be overhauled; and a national police misconduct registry would be created so officers who were fired for such discretions could not be hired by another police department.
Technically the bill wouldn’t mandate certain reforms such as the prohibition of chokeholds at a state and local level, but it would tie in the new federal standards as thresholds for police departments to meet if they wanted to continue receiving federal aid.
Let’s talk about race
Running parallel to the national discussion around policing the past year has been the question of race in America.
Chauvin’s conviction in April on murder and manslaughter charges were seen as validation that a white police officer could be convicted of killing a Black person, but liberal proponents of police reform are quick to say that the outcome isn’t indicative of progress.
Surrounding the Chauvin verdict are the police killings of numerous Black people — Daunte Wright, Ma’Khia Bryant and Andrew Brown Jr.
Advocates have argued that the continued death of Black people at the hands of the police, among other things, affirms that the problem is rooted in systemic racism.
Systemic racism is a concept that’s intertwined in critical race theory, which asserts the U.S. was created on racist structures such as slavery and that remnants of these systems are present today and need to be dismantled because they continue to drive inequality and inequity across the country.
Republican lawmakers wholly reject the premise of critical race theory and have recently introduced legislation in an effort to curb the teaching of it in schools.
“The push of this narrative that police officers are systematically targeting Black people. I think that part of it has not been helpful at all,” Donalds said of the conversations on race and policing that have swirled around the country.
“If you want to have a conversation on race, let’s have the whole conversation,” Donalds added. “If you want to teach the history of America and the history of race in America, teach the whole history, let’s not cherry pick.”
Will Congress act?
Since the House passed legislation in early March, Bass, Scott and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) have worked on trying to reach a deal that would garner enough bipartisan support to clear the Senate filibuster.
Both Bass and the White House signaled that they would like to have the bill on its way to President Biden’s desk by the first anniversary of Floyd’s murder, which is Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Bass acknowledged that the legislation wouldn’t be ready to go by Tuesday but remained confident that its finalization was imminent.
“We won’t make May 25, but I don’t believe it’s going to take months,” Bass told reporters at the Capitol.
“What’s most important is that we get it right and that it be substantive, even if it’s a couple of weeks later. … I won’t say we’re apart on all of these issues, we just haven’t finished.”
Regardless of the final contents of the bill, it shouldn’t be seen as a miracle cure that will immediately fix all areas of policing, Inimai Chettiar, federal director of the bipartisan Justice Action Network, noted.
“I don’t think what we are looking at is something that is going to solve all of our policing problems,” Chettiar told The Hill, comparing the bill to the bipartisan criminal justice reform First Step Act that was passed in 2018 under former President Trump.
“Obviously, we need a second step and a third step, and so I think that’s what we’re moving towards is something that’s … a recognition from both sides that something’s wrong in policing and that we do need to fix things.”
The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.