On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was murdered in police custody on a Minneapolis street. While police initially downplayed the incident, the video of his final moments quickly went viral.
Floyd’s death followed those of Breonna Taylor, a Louisville, Ky., woman who was killed by police in her home during a botched raid, and Ahmaud Arbery, a Georgia man who was killed by local white residents, with no charges filed until a video of the attack was released about three months later.
After the three high-profile Black deaths, millions took to the streets across the nation and the world protesting racial injustice and calling for policing to be reformed, defunded or even abolished.
At the federal level, Democrats in the House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act last summer and again in March, but both times it stalled in the Senate. With moderate Democrats unwilling to change filibuster rules that would allow passage with just 50 votes, it is likely to languish unless a version of the legislation that can earn at least 10 Republican votes is agreed upon.
There have been numerous cosmetic changes at the local level, with declarations that racism is a public health crisis (some tied to additional funding for the issue, others simply a statement) and the creation of Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C. Statues of Confederate leaders and other racist figures have come down, sometimes with formal approval from authorities and other times without their blessing.
Some states and municipalities have passed laws banning chokeholds or mandating the use of body cameras, measures many criminal justice reform activists say are not enough. Other states have gone further, attempting to peel back protections for cops who commit crimes in the line of duty and eliminating the type of “no-knock” warrants that led to the death of Taylor.
Other states, however, have gone in another direction in the wake of last summer’s demonstrations, passing anti-protest bills and proposing legislation to “back the blue,” as the Thin Blue Line flag becomes ingrained in Republican iconography.
Below are examples of changes to criminal justice statutes at the state and local levels.
A few states have looked into addressing qualified immunity, a protection for public employees created by the Supreme Court in 1967 and then expanded in a 1982 ruling. With those standards, it is extremely difficult to sue any government employee — including law enforcement officers — in civil court for actions they take on the job. Supporters of qualified immunity say that without it, recruiting and retaining officers would become too difficult.
States cannot alter federal protections, but in the wake of the Floyd protests some changes were made at the state level. Colorado passed a criminal justice reform bill last June, which included a partial repeal of qualified immunity and created a “civil action for deprivation of rights.” Additionally, the law allows the state to revoke an officer’s certification if they are found by a criminal or civil court to have used excessive force, disqualifying them from any local or state police jobs in Colorado.
“We cannot wait any longer to knock down institutional racism,” Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said last year. “This legislation specifically contains landmark evidence-based reforms that not only protect civil rights, but will help restore trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”
The law does allow local departments and governments the option to cover any monetary penalties incurred by their officers in state courts, while a version passed in New Mexico earlier this year automatically exempts any individual from paying damages out of pocket, putting the onus on the municipality for which they work. Connecticut passed a similar measure limiting qualified immunity, but left a loophole if officers “had an objectively good faith belief that [their] conduct did not violate the law.”
In Congress, rolling back qualified immunity had been a sticking point in negotiations last summer, with Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., calling it a “poison pill” and the Trump White House saying it was a “nonstarter.” On the Democratic side, key Biden ally Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., said earlier this month he’d be willing to move forward on a package that doesn’t include addressing the protection, a position not held by the entire negotiating team.
Twenty-six-year-old Breonna Taylor was killed on March 13, 2020, after Louisville police wearing plain clothes broke into her boyfriend’s apartment with a battering ram to execute a no-knock warrant. Taylor’s boyfriend, thinking it was a robbery, fired a shot at an officer’s leg, and when the officers returned fire with 32 shots, Taylor was struck and killed. Neither she nor her boyfriend had a criminal record, and no drugs were found on the premises. Attorneys for Taylor’s family allege that the man police were seeking had already been arrested prior to the raid that killed her.
Supporters of no-knock warrants state that they allow police to execute warrants on dangerous suspects so they aren’t ambushed, versus knocking on the door and identifying themselves. Since the tactic was introduced as part of the "war on drugs" under President Richard Nixon, its use, according to researchers, has gone up exponentially in recent decades and is now used 60,000 to 70,000 times a year. An analysis by the Louisville Courier-Journal last year found that no-knock warrants disproportionately targeted Black residents of the city.
Last June, the Louisville City Council unanimously passed a ban on no-knock warrants titled Breonna’s Law. Under the law, and “absent exigent circumstances,” police must “wait a minimum of 15 seconds or for a reasonable amount of time for occupants to respond, whichever is greater, before entering the premises.” Additionally, officers serving a warrant would be required to turn on body cameras before doing so.
“Breonna, that’s all she wanted to do was to save lives,” said Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, of her daughter, who was an emergency medical technician. “So with this law, she will be able to continue to do that. So we’re grateful for that.”
The state of Kentucky followed with a partial ban in April, but the law contains large loopholes, such as allowing no-knocks if “the crime alleged is a crime that would qualify a person, if convicted, as a violent offender” or if “giving notice prior to entry will endanger the life or safety of any person." The bill also includes exemptions for counties with a population below 90,000 — which includes nearly all counties in the state.
Virginia passed a version of Breonna’s Law in October, with Taylor’s family joining Gov. Ralph Northam at a December signing ceremony. Under the legislation, those serving the warrant must be “recognizable and identifiable as a uniformed law-enforcement officer and provide audible notice of his authority and purpose reasonably expected to be heard by occupants.” The law requires that warrants be executed during daytime, unless law enforcement can show a judge good cause or the warrant is for withdrawal of blood from a suspect.
“Today is not a cause for celebration. Today is a somber occasion,” Northam said, adding, “Today we’ve taken a step forward to make sure other families don’t suffer the same loss as your family.”
Last week, voters in Pittsburgh overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative banning no-knocks in the city, and also requiring body cameras and uniforms for those serving warrants.
No one has been charged in Taylor’s killing, although an internal police investigation found that officers shouldn’t have fired any rounds while executing the warrant.
Reducing traffic stops and increasing civilian responders
One strategy suggested by activists is limiting police involvement in less dangerous situations that have the potential to escalate, such as situations involving mental health issues or minor traffic violations.
The police killing of Daunte Wright during an April stop over an expired registration and an outstanding warrant drew renewed focus to pretextual arrests, which allow police officers to use minor violations to justify pulling over a car to investigate other potential crimes. Wright, 20, was killed in Minnesota by Kimberly Potter, an officer who said she meant to use her Taser to subdue him but accidentally fired her gun instead. Potter has been charged with second-degree manslaughter.
Prior to Wright’s death, the state of Virginia was already taking action. A law signed by Northam in November and that went into effect in March limited the reasons cops could pull over motorists, eliminating broken or loud exhaust systems, tinted windows, objects hanging from the rearview mirror or a state inspection less than four months overdue. The bill’s original language included headlights and brake lights being out, but that language was amended.
“A disproportionate number of people pulled over for minor traffic offenses tend to be people of color. This is a contributor to the higher incarceration rate among minorities,” said Patrick Hope, a Democratic state delegate who sponsored the bill.
The legislation also banned police from executing searches on the basis of claiming to smell the odor of marijuana. Virginia had already decriminalized weed, dropping the punishment for possession of an ounce or less to a $25 fine, but lawmakers were concerned that it wouldn’t stop police from executing warrantless searches due to the smell. Police searches based on allegedly detecting weed have become so prevalent that in 2019 a New York judge said she rejected the “canard of marijuana emanating from nearly every vehicle subject to a traffic stop.”
Berkeley, Calif., is trying something similar, but progress has been slow. The City Council first passed a plan last July that began the process of moving traffic stops for minor violations away from armed law enforcement to a civilian traffic force. In February, the council authorized a plan from Mayor Jesse Arreguín that would reform stops, including eliminating those for low-level offenses. While the Berkeley police chief said it would allow his force to focus on more serious crimes, the city’s police union said it would make the area less safe.
Berkeley is currently working on the creation of a separate traffic force, which is curbed by a state law that restricts who is allowed to make traffic stops.
Activists have pointed to the outsize share that police spending occupies in many municipal budgets even as other programs are cut. This means that in effect police are being asked to solve problems they have not been trained to handle and that do not require an armed presence. Criminal justice reformers are calling for some police funding to be directed at community programs.
“I think using the word ‘defund’ is a mistake,” Arreguín told the New York Times in February. “What we’re focusing on is transforming our approach to public safety, and that’s part of the whole broader effort to figure out what is the role of police in our community and how can they best be deployed?”
The concept of civilian responders is being tried in a few cities, sending unarmed non-police to deal with 911 calls regarding mental health or substance abuse. Eugene, Ore., has had a program in place since 1989, and early results for a pilot program in Denver have been positive, with 748 calls being handled by non-police in the first six months, with none leading to arrests or requiring police escalation.
“It’s extremely successful, and it’s even better than what we had anticipated,” Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen told USA Today. “Right off the bat, we had officers on every shift saying, ‘When can we get more of this and expand this?’”
In some Republican-led states, the response to the demonstrations has been not to consider the systemic inequities that sparked them but to condemn the protesters themselves.
While there were some instances of violence, a Washington Post analysis found that 96 percent of last year’s racial justice protests were peaceful. This has not stopped a wave of bills across the country that opponents claim curtail First Amendment rights.
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an “anti-riot” bill into law last month, legislation that civil rights groups say threatens free speech in the state.
“If you look at the breadth of this particular piece of legislation, it is the strongest anti-rioting, pro-law-enforcement piece of legislation in the country,” DeSantis said at an April press conference. “There’s just nothing even close.”
One highly criticized part of the law grants drivers protections in civil suits if they drive their car into protesters blocking a road and claim they were concerned for their own well-being. It also creates a pair of new crimes, “mob intimidation” and the felony of “aggravated rioting,” which carries a prison sentence of up to 15 years. Under the new statute, rioting is defined as “a violent public disturbance involving an assembly of three or more persons.”
The broad package limits local governments’ ability to interfere with law enforcement and requires municipalities to justify any reduction in police budgets. The bill also protects public monuments — including those honoring Confederates — from being torn down or defaced, with a maximum penalty of up to 10 years in prison. Anyone arrested at a protest will now be held in custody until their first hearing, meaning that mass arrests could leave demonstrators in jail for days.
In April, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a similar bill into law, offering criminal and civil immunity for drivers who “unintentionally” kill or injure protesters if they are “fleeing from a riot.” Additionally, anyone who obstructs a public road or highway faces a misdemeanor charge punishable by up to a year in county jail and/or a fine ranging from $100 to $5,000.
The Iowa House passed an expansive bill supported by the Republican governor that includes many of the provisions seen in other states, such as immunity for drivers and increased punishments for blocking a street. It also includes provisions to expand qualified immunity and make it a misdemeanor to not pull over for an unmarked police car driven by a plainclothes officer. In Kentucky, meanwhile, the state Senate passed a bill that would make it illegal to taunt or insult police officers.
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