The police killing of George Floyd ignited a mass movement centered on persistent police violence against Black Americans and intensified calls for systemic change in American policing.
Amid the earlier losses of Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, and countless others, George Floyd’s death served as a catalyst for one of the largest social movements in U.S. history. As people poured into the streets, a greater share of the public appeared to see America’s criminal justice system as deeply rooted in a history of racial oppression and continued dehumanization of people of color.
The statistics detailing the harms of law enforcement and mass incarceration make this plainly clear. While comprising only 13 percent of the country, Black people face 21 percent of police contact, make up 33 percent of people behind bars, and are over three times more likely to be killed by the police than their white counterparts.
Building off nearly a decade of the Black Lives Matter movement and other grassroots organizing, the impact and reach of last summer’s uprisings were profound, signaling that the country may be on the precipice of positive change.
In response to these community-led movements — many of which rallied around calls to “Defund the Police” — cities and counties have begun restructuring how local budgets and law enforcement are deployed in service of public safety. For example, Austin, Los Angeles, and at least 12 other cities pledged to cut police budgets with plans to reinvest in community programs such as supportive housing, violence prevention, and other services. Some local governments have since walked back some of these promises: Minneapolis never disbanded its police department, instead spending $6.4 million to recruit more officers.
Notably, San Francisco launched crisis response teams to respond to behavioral health calls in lieu of police, and Berkeley voted to limit law enforcement involvement in low-level traffic stops. Minneapolis and other cities made commitments to end or reduce police presence in schools. New York City, home to the nation’s largest police force, just became the first municipality to end qualified immunity for officers (joining Colorado in doing so).
Citizens also drove changes through the ballot box, with at least 18 ballot initiatives strengthening law enforcement oversight nationwide, including in localities like Kyle, Texas, and Columbus, Ohio.
States too have responded to calls for change. Throughout the past year, at least 30 states and Washington, DC, enacted one or more statewide legislative policing reforms, ensuring greater policy uniformity within each jurisdiction. While the new laws cover a wide range of issues, 25 states and DC addressed at least one of three areas directly related to the circumstances of Floyd’s killing:
- use of force;
- duty for officers to intervene, report, or render medical aid in instances of police misconduct; and
- policies relating to law enforcement misconduct reporting and decertification (i.e., the revocation of a person’s authorization to serve as a police officer.)
Use of force
In reaction to the way in which Floyd was killed — where Chauvin knelt on his neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds — many states restricted or clarified the types of force that officers are permitted to use and in what circumstances.
Many states changed their use of force standards, often clarifying that deadly force is justified only as a last resort after exhausting all nonviolent options, and now require law enforcement agencies to report specified use of force incidents to the state or federal government. (Although the FBI maintains a national use of force database, compliance is voluntary, with only 5,030 of the nation’s 18,514 law enforcement agencies submitting data in 2020).
Colorado now bans the use of deadly force to apprehend or arrest a person suspected only of minor or nonviolent offenses. Also, though many states permit the use of deadly force to prevent “escape,” five states enacted restrictions or prohibitions on shooting at fleeing vehicles or suspects, a policy aimed at preventing deaths like that of Adam Toledo, a 13-year old shot by Chicago police during a foot chase. Additionally, 9 states and DC enacted complete bans on chokeholds and other neck restraints while 8 states enacted legislation restricting their use to instances in which officers are legally justified to use deadly force.
Some states also focused on the standard by which use of force is reviewed, removing subjective knowledge from the equation to focus on whether the officer’s actions were objectively reasonable or to lay out what alternatives the officer should have considered or circumstances that should affect the decision-making process.
Meanwhile, states also passed laws to restrict law enforcement’s use of less-lethal weapons such as rubber bullets, pepper spray, and tear gas during demonstrations. This is in response, at least in part, to law enforcement’s overreliance on punitive and often violent tactics used during last summer’s overwhelmingly peaceful protests. (Some protests remain ongoing, though their smaller size or location make them less widely reported.) Worth noting too, at least seven states passed laws in 2020 and early 2021 restricting the rights of protesters, joining 23 states that made similar moves between 2015 and 2019. In Florida and Oklahoma the backlash to protests went so far that legislators passed bills protecting drivers who deliberately hit protesters with their vehicles from liability. From late May to early July 2020, at least 72 such incidents occurred, some involving police in law enforcement vehicles.
Duty to intervene, report, and render medical aid
Despite pleas from onlookers for the brutality to stop, three officers watched or aided Derek Chauvin as he took George Floyd’s life. In reaction, 12 states and DC have created a duty for law enforcement officers to intervene in cases of excessive or illegal force or misconduct, with penalties for officers who fail to do so ranging from discretionary decertification to criminal liability. All but one state also included a requirement for officers to report excessive force or misconduct to supervisors. And eight states created a duty to render medical aid for anyone under an officer’s custody or care. Even without state action, many localities are taking the matter into their own hands: 21 of the nation’s 100 largest police agencies have adopted duty to intervene policies since June 5, 2020, bringing the total to 72 agencies.
Although the details of each law vary, some states now require officers to intervene, report, or render medical aid when witnessing the use of chokeholds. Others apply this duty to a broader set of misconduct behaviors, including any use of excessive force, assault, bribery, theft, or tampering with evidence.
Decertification processes and centralized misconduct reporting
Prior to killing George Floyd, Derek Chauvin had been the subject of 22 misconduct complaints or internal investigations. Officers involved in other high-profile killings, like those of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, also have histories of past misconduct. Timothy Loehmann, the Cleveland officer who shot and killed Rice, had been found “unfit” to carry out his duties by a police department he previously worked for.
Without statewide certification and decertification processes, or an easy way to look up prior misconduct, “wandering officers” like Loehmann can travel from department to department unnoticed. To remove officers who are deemed unfit to serve and more closely monitor the prevalence and types of police misconduct, at least 14 states enacted laws in the past year that established or strengthened law enforcement decertification processes, and 13 states added laws requiring law enforcement agencies to report misconduct data to the state.
Massachusetts and Hawaii created their first centralized bodies tasked with decertifying law enforcement officers, leaving only California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and DC lacking this authority. Twelve states created additional statutory grounds for the suspension or revocation of law enforcement officers’ certifications. Massachusetts, for example, will now automatically revoke officer certifications for making false arrests, creating or using falsified evidence, destroying evidence, perpetrating a hate crime, using excessive force that results in death or serious bodily injury, and more.
New laws also mandate that law enforcement agencies report specified data to the state, such as the names of officers who resign while under investigation, are terminated for cause, or receive misconduct allegations. And 10 states created databases or now require state-level maintenance of data regarding officer decertifications, disciplinary actions, or misconduct, with some mandating public access. With these additions, 11 states now maintain public databases containing officer misconduct records, although more states — such as Colorado — have mandated that these records be available to the public upon request. Only in Indiana, Massachusetts, and Washington do new laws require reporting to the National Decertification Index, the voluntary national database that houses information on decertified officers.
It remains an open question whether the latest wave of state-level reforms will truly alter the landscape of arbitrary, discriminatory, and even deadly policing. After all, it was only seven years ago that states enacted a slew of policing reforms following the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. And yet the needless death continues.
The new laws following George Floyd’s death may hold some promise, but alone, they are unlikely to ensure the fundamental change that so many communities are clamoring for. Restricting or banning chokeholds, for example, is important, but asphyxiation accounts for less than 1 percent of law enforcement killings. Further, many police departments already have duty to intervene and report policies in place, including Minneapolis at the time Floyd was murdered. And despite laws strengthening decertification processes, officer termination and decertification in some jurisdictions may continue to be undermined by police unions and negotiated contracts.
The federal government has a critical role to play here too, with some recent developments suggesting that progress could be on the horizon. The Department of Justice announced that it would launch investigations into Minneapolis and Louisville’s police departments. And after a rare moment of accountability in which Chauvin was convicted of murdering Floyd, the DOJ secured federal civil rights indictments against all four of the officers involved in Floyd’s death.
In Congress, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act (JPA) awaits action with the potential to address some of the most intractable problems in policing: racial profiling, use of excessive force, militarization of police culture and practice, and lack of accountability in cases of police misconduct. And while the majority of new state laws on decertification and misconduct address the “wandering officer” problem within a given state, the JPA seeks to tackle the movement of unfit officers between states by incentivizing police departments to submit data to a publicly available national database of police misconduct by tying federal funding to reporting.
But achieving the twin goals of ending over-policing and mass incarceration will require reducing unnecessary contact with the police and overreliance on punitive systems of control. As communities continue to mobilize for a fundamental restructuring of the systems of public safety, state reform efforts should be accompanied by a potentially more impactful strategy: limiting when and why police are called upon in the first place. The police too often respond to the most minor of offenses in overly harsh and racially disparate ways. Law enforcement is also inappropriately expected to respond to situations that would be better addressed by public health professionals or other service providers.
As some localities and law enforcement agencies have begun to do, states must bolster public safety responses that center on harm reduction and even identify situations, such as minor traffic violations and mental or behavioral health crises, that do not require law enforcement at all. Some notable harm reduction strategies that states should encourage include:
- unarmed specialists that respond without law enforcement or co-responder models that pair police with social workers, mental health professionals, and other behavioral health experts when responding to people experiencing a behavioral or mental health crisis (see recent legislation in Virginia);
- diversion programs and strategies that channel people away from the traditional criminal legal system to community-based services that attempt to address the underlying causes for an individual’s criminal legal system involvement (e.g., substance use, mental illness, housing insecurity, trauma);
- community-led violence prevention programs that allow community members to be active partners in addressing crime (such as gun violence) in their neighborhoods without depending exclusively on law enforcement to arrest or incarcerate problems away.
In partnering with community service providers, law enforcement responses can better integrate collaboration with — and perhaps deference to — the clinicians, social workers, mediators, and even families that are often far better positioned to respond to the many crises that police now routinely deal with. Bringing these strategies to scale nationwide is necessary if America is to successfully reimagine policing and embrace systems that lead to real community safety.