Police reform momentum has slowed as states roll back legislation

Two years after the death of George Floyd, the momentum behind the push for police reform has stalled. Change is coming unevenly throughout the country, though legal experts say Mr. Floyd’s death, among others, has altered the trajectory of policing.

Wong Maye-E/AP
A protester and a police officer shake hands in the middle of a standoff during a solidarity rally calling for justice over the death of George Floyd, June 2, 2020, in New York. Mr. Floyd died after being brutally restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25, 2020.

The national reckoning on race and policing that followed the death of George Floyd – with a Minneapolis police officer’s knee on his windpipe – spurred a torrent of state laws aimed at fixing the police.

More than two years later, that torrent has slowed.

Some of the initial reforms have been tweaked or even rolled back after police complained that the new policies were hindering their ability to catch criminals.

And while governors in all but five states signed police reform laws, many gave police more protections as well. More than a dozen states only passed laws aimed at tightening police oversight and broadening police accountability; five states only passed new police protections.

States collectively approved nearly 300 police reform bills after Mr. Floyd’s killing in May 2020, according to an analysis by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland. The analysis used data from the National Conference of State Legislatures to identify legislation enacted since June 2020 that affects police oversight, training, use of force policies, and mental health diversions, including crisis intervention and alternatives to arrests.

Many of the accountability laws touched on themes present in Mr. Floyd’s death, including the use of body cameras and requirements that police report excessive force by their colleagues. Among other things, police rights measures gave officers the power to sue civilians for violating their civil rights.

North Carolina, for example, passed a broad law that lets authorities charge civilians if their conduct allegedly interfered with an officer’s duty. But it also created a public database of officers who were fired or suspended for misconduct.

In Minnesota – where the reform movement was sparked by a chilling video showing Mr. Floyd’s death at the knee of Officer Derek Chauvin – the state Legislature enacted some police accountability changes, but they fell well short of what Democrats and activists were seeking.

The state banned neck restraints like the one used on Mr. Floyd. It also imposed a duty to intervene on officers who see a colleague using excessive force, changed rules on the use of force, and created a police misconduct database.

But during this year’s legislative session, Democrats were unable to overcome Republican opposition to further limits on “no-knock” warrants even after a Minneapolis SWAT team in February entered a downtown apartment while serving a search warrant and killed Amir Locke, a 22-year-old Black man.

In Minneapolis, voters defeated a 2021 “defund the police” ballot initiative that would have replaced the department with a reimagined public safety unit with less reliance on cops with guns.

Similar dynamics have played out across the nation. A few examples:

Days before the first anniversary of Mr. Floyd’s killing, Washington’s Democratic governor signed one of the most comprehensive police reform packages in the nation, including new laws banning the use of chokeholds and no-knock warrants.

Police had argued that some of the reforms went too far and would interfere with their ability to arrest criminals. The pushback didn’t stop after the new laws went into effect.

Earlier this year, lawmakers rolled back some provisions, making it clear that police can use force, if necessary, to detain someone who is fleeing a temporary investigative detention. Police must still use “reasonable care,” including de-escalation techniques, and cannot use force when the people being detained are being compliant.

Carlos Hunter, a Black man, was fatally shot by police in 2019. His sister, Nickeia, said it was disheartening to see some of the laws amended after years of reform efforts.

“Any good the reforms that were in place did, they are going to try to undo in 2023,” she said. “They are trying to roll back every gain that was made.”

On paper, the police reforms passed in Nevada in 2021 appeared expansive.

The public would get a statewide use-of-force database with information on deadly police encounters. Law enforcement agencies were mandated to develop an early-warning system to flag problematic officers. And officers had to de-escalate situations “whenever possible or appropriate” and only use an “objectively reasonable” amount of force.

A year later, a lack of funding and a failure to follow through have blunted the impact of the reforms.

The database doesn’t exist yet. The early-warning system wasn’t clearly defined, so some police departments said they’ve made no changes. And many law enforcement agencies already had de-escalation language in their use-of-force policies.

“If you want my opinion, mostly it was feel-good legislation that somewhere along the lines, somebody thought they were making a huge difference,” said Sheriff Gerald Antinoro of Storey County, an area outside of Reno. “It’s fluff and mirrors.”

In Mississippi, where 38% of the population is Black, there is little political appetite for police reform – and Republican state Sen. Joey Fillingane is candid when he explains why.

“The general feeling among my constituents in south Mississippi is we need to support police and thank them for the job they’re doing because crime is on the rise and they are standing between us and the criminal element,” he said.

But there are some who see a need for action.

Jarvis Dortch, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, was a member of the Mississippi House of Representatives when Mr. Floyd was killed. He watched as states around the country enacted a wide assortment of police reforms while no police accountability measures were approved in Mississippi.

“It’s disappointing,” Mr. Dortch said.

Virginia, once a reliably conservative state, flexed its then-new Democratic muscle after Mr. Floyd’s death, passing a sweeping package of police reforms. Among them: legislation banning the use of chokeholds and no-knock search warrants.

A key part of the reform package was a bill to set up a new statewide framework giving mental health clinicians a prominent role in responding to people in crisis – rather than relying on police. The law was named after Marcus-David Peters, an unarmed Black man who was fatally shot by a Richmond police officer in 2018 during a psychiatric crisis.

Advocates hoped the new law would minimize police participation in emotionally charged situations that they may not be adequately trained to handle and can end with disastrous results.

Five pilot programs began last year in various regions of the state, but some supporters of the law were disappointed when an amendment approved by the Legislature earlier this year gave localities with populations of 40,000 and under the ability to opt out of the system.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Denise Lavoie reported from Richmond, Virginia; Tatyana Monnay reported from College Park, Maryland; Juliette Rihl reported from Las Vegas. Rachel Konieczny in Phoenix and Steve Karnowski in Minneapolis also contributed. 

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