(NEW YORK) — A year after George Floyd’s murder sparked a national racial reckoning over police brutality, lawmakers in Washington have yet to pass any new policing reforms that might make a difference.
But where Washington has failed to act, states and cities have taken matters into their own hands.
Since Floyd’s death, 40 states and the District of Columbia have enacted significant legislation aimed at reforming law enforcement, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The laws, ranging from ending legal protections for officers to banning chokeholds, could transform police departments’ relationships with the communities they serve.
Colorado, New Mexico, and New York City ended officers’ “qualified immunity,” which protects officers from civil lawsuits while performing their duties. Nine states required many or all officers to wear body cameras, and 17 states and D.C. have prohibited or restricted the use of neck restraints, according to the NCSL.
Maryland lawmaker gets personal as sweeping reform passed
In Maryland, the Democrat-controlled legislature last month overrode three vetoes by the Republican governor to pass sweeping reform measures that would limit officers’ use of force, require body cameras and restrict the use of no-knock warrants. In a bid to increase accountability, state lawmakers also repealed the nation’s first-ever officer bill of rights and added civilians to the disciplinary process.
“This type of police reform is going to be incredibly meaningful for so many people that just want to live their lives,” Maryland State Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, who chaired a workgroup on policing reform and was instrumental in the laws’ passage, told ABC News. “They want to feel safe when they send their son out to the store, when their children come home from a party, and they don’t want to have to have that worry.”
During the debate over the bills this spring, Atterbeary, who is Black and a mother of three, shared her fears about her nine-year-old son being misjudged by police and recounted times her father and brother had been racially profiled by officers in Maryland.
“We all have that fear of something happening to one of our loved ones,” Atterbeary said. “And when we were debating this issue on the House floor, my White colleagues would stand up and say, ‘I don’t know how that feels. I will not know how that feels, ever.’ And that’s real. I think that’s absolutely real.”
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, continued to negotiate this week over details of a bill named in Floyd’s memory. A version that passed the House of Representatives 11 months ago would prohibit federal officers from using chokeholds and no-knock warrants and encourage states to ban them, too; establish a national database on police misconduct; and bar federal, state and local law enforcement from engaging in racial or religious profiling.
It would also end qualified immunity, which Republicans in the Senate say is a sticking point in talks with their Democratic colleagues. They are largely opposed to opening up individual officers to greater personal liability.
In Maryland, Democratic lawmakers supported ending qualified immunity, but doing so did not make it into the bills that passed.
“You cannot let police reform die on one issue within the larger issue,” Atterbeary said. “You have to move, and you have to move now.”
Advocates call for Biden to step up
As a candidate, now-President Joe Biden had promised to make police reform a top priority. During his address to a joint session of Congress last month, he set a deadline of the anniversary of Floyd’s death, May 25, for lawmakers to send him a police reform bill.
That deadline passed without a deal, although negotiators said this week they were optimistic.
But while reform advocates have expressed frustration with Congress’ pace, some have also grown frustrated with Biden’s focus on other issues, like the coronavirus pandemic and rebuilding the economy — at the expense, they say, of racial justice.
“We are heavily angry,” activist Porche Bennett-Bey told Biden last year, when he visited Kenosha, Wisconsin, in the days after a Black man, Jacob Blake Jr., had been shot in the back and paralyzed by a White police officer.
After the meeting, Biden wrote in a letter to Bennett-Bey: “If I am lucky enough to become president, I am committed to being a willing partner to advance the work of creating a more just and equitable future.”
What would she tell Biden now?
“Don’t forget those words,” she said in an interview with ABC News. “As I said at that time, I go off actions.”
“You know, forgiving student loans and giving the money to help the economy build back up, that’s a really great thing,” she continued, “but what about the people who are still having to deal with these problems on a day-to-day basis?”
Blake’s father, Jacob Blake Sr., said he had seen some progress at the national level, but he told ABC News he wanted Biden to ramp up the pressure.
“He could do more,” Blake said. “With the current president and vice president, we’re moving in the right direction. But as you know, like I know, they don’t make laws. You know, it comes to Congress.”
If Congress fails, “it will say that systemic racism wins,” Blake said.
White House says Biden working behind the scenes
The White House says that the president is working behind the scenes to get legislation over the finish line — but has put the onus to act on Congress.
“We have been closely engaged with the negotiators and a range of parties on the Hill,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday. “We have also been respecting the space needed for the negotiators to have these discussions about where they can find common ground and where they can find agreement.”
After meeting with Floyd’s family Tuesday for over an hour in the Oval Office, Biden said in a written statement that “we have to act” and that “we face an inflection point.”
“He did let us know that he supports passing the bill,” Floyd’s nephew, Brandon Williams, told reporters afterward. “But he wants to make sure that it’s the right bill and not a rushed bill.”
Baltimore police undergo ‘complete makeover’
In Maryland’s largest city, Baltimore, the police commissioner, Michael Harrison, has been implementing what he calls a “complete makeover” of his department since he arrived two years ago.
After the U.S. Department of Justice found the agency had violated residents’ constitutional rights through discriminatory practices — with more than a dozen officers convicted — the department entered into an agreement known as a “consent decree” in which it subjected itself to federal oversight and mandatory changes.
“It’s a culture change,” Harrison told ABC News. “It’s a paradigm shift. And it’s new to a lot of people.”
He said it was more difficult for senior, veteran officers to accept the changes, while it was easier for newer officers born into the new set of regulations and practices.
“People reject what they fear, and they fear what they don’t know,” Harrison said. “And so in the beginning, it’s all about change management: How do we create change and teach our people to do something different in a better way, probably a better practice or a best practice, that doesn’t insult them to say, ‘You were doing at all bad and all wrong."”
Across the country, it is difficult to assess the impact of recently passed laws, many of which have not even gone into effect yet — or which may take years to fully implement.
But in Baltimore, the commissioner notes, in recent years the city had already seen the police use force less.
And as protesters took to Baltimore’s streets last year following Floyd’s death, Harrison said, officers exhibited more restraint than they had five years before, when residents protested the death of a 25-year-old Black man, Freddie Gray, in police custody.
“Although the proactive work to reduce violent crime has increased,” he said, “you’re seeing, seeing fewer complaints by citizens, you’re seeing a lot less litigation by citizens, you’re seeing fewer injuries on the part of officers and on the part of community members.”
But so far, Harrison added, “it doesn’t always translate to a reduction in violent crime.”
The city’s homicide rate has increased; it saw 341 homicides over the past year.
“It will inevitably translate to the community’s support of the police, and us having the ability to reduce violent crime — because they’re partnering with us for more than they are now,” Harrison said. “That will happen.”
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