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State Policing Reforms Since George Floyd’s Murder

While the past year has seen some victories, transformative change in policing remains elusive.

Published: May 21, 2021

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 CastileBreonna 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 hous­ingviol­ence 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.

Broader solu­tions

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.