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George Floyd's murder sparked police reforms — but only in some states

‘No more kneeling and social media posts — we’ve had enough of the performative acts. Real police reform is needed now,’ said state Sen. Steven Bradford of California.

By Associated Press - April 25, 2021
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Steven Bradford

George Floyd’s killing last year and the protests that followed led to a wave of police reforms in dozens of states, from changes in use-of-force policies to greater accountability for officers. At the same time, lawmakers in a handful of states have had success addressing racial inequities.

But those changes mask a more complicated legislative legacy to a movement that many hoped would produce generational change: Other states have done little or nothing around police and racial justice reforms, and several have moved in the opposite direction.

In Texas, where Floyd was raised and laid to rest, state Sen. Royce West this year helped introduce the “George Floyd Act” to overhaul policing. But the bill has languished for weeks after getting one hearing, and West, one of the state’s most prominent Black lawmakers, acknowledges it faces long odds in the Republican-dominated Legislature.

“We have members of the Senate that just refuse to pass a bill with his name on it,” he said.

He now hopes to take a different approach in hopes of getting a win — stand-alone bills without Floyd’s name that would make piecemeal changes such as banning police chokeholds.

“You have to ask yourself whether or not you want symbolism over substance,” West said. “And so if you don’t have the votes to pass a bill named after George Floyd, then we got to make certain that we do some single-shot bills.”

Across the country, the murder conviction Tuesday of a white Minneapolis police officer who held a knee to Floyd’s neck for 9 1/2 minutes has renewed calls for policing reforms and legislative action to address long-standing racial inequities.

They will test over how far states will go in addressing police brutality and systemic racism in everything from education to health care to housing. Some seized on the verdict to promote legislative action or calls for change.

On Wednesday, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, signed a policing bill that will require officers to report any use of force and when they point a weapon at someone. Another GOP governor, Ohio’s Mike DeWine, announced a legislative proposal to boost police oversight. And in Nebraska, the Legislature advanced a bill requiring greater law enforcement accountability and training, especially on how to deescalate conflicts.

Ahead of the verdict Tuesday, members of California’s Legislative Black Caucus gathered outside the Capitol to highlight police and criminal justice reform bills they hope to advance. Several of the proposals, including the creation of a system to decertify officers accused of misconduct, failed last year.

“The time is now for us to act,” said state Sen. Steven Bradford, a Democrat who chairs the caucus. “No more kneeling and social media posts — we’ve had enough of the performative acts. Real police reform is needed now.”

Over the past year, at least 36 states have signed into law measures that would reform some police practices, according to an Associated Press analysis of data from the National Conference of State Legislatures. The new laws come from at least 1,800 police reform bills filed in statehouses across the U.S. since Floyd’s killing, with the majority being introduced this year.

The proposals include statewide bans on chokeholds, limits on no-knock warrants, ending qualified immunity for officers, and restrictions on use of tear gas and other crowd-control techniques. Statehouses also have focused on changing how fatal police shootings are investigated.

Earlier this month, Maryland lawmakers overrode the governor’s veto to repeal what had been the nation’s first Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, replacing those protections with procedures that give civilians a role in the disciplinary process. Washington lawmakers, over some objections from law enforcement unions and Republicans, are moving ahead with nearly a dozen bills overhauling police tactics, use of force, and oversight.

Many of the successful bills had bipartisan support, but sweeping reforms have been more difficult, even in heavily Democratic states, in part because of opposition from police unions. Several states have moved in the opposite direction, expanding the rights of officers or passing legislation that targets protesters like those involved in last summer’s demonstrations.

In Oklahoma, where proposals to ban the use of police chokeholds never received a hearing in the GOP-controlled Legislature, a new law that targets protests grants immunity to motorists who kill or injure rioters. Other legislation targeting protesters has advanced in Arizona, Florida, and Tennessee.

“These anti-protest bills were flying off the floor,” said state Rep. Regina Goodwin, a Democrat from Tulsa. “What that says to me is that Oklahoma is either not aware of the critical issues that America faces as it relates to racism and police abuse, or folks are looking the other way because they can.”

In a reaction to calls for redirecting some police funding to social services, Georgia’s Republican-majority Legislature passed a bill aimed at preventing cities and counties from cutting police budgets by more than 5% a year, after Atlanta and another local government debated but rejected sharper cuts.

One of the most hotly contested bills in the Republican-controlled New Hampshire Legislature this year would prohibit teaching about systemic racism and sexism in public schools and state-funded programs. Under the so-called “divisive topics” bill, which has already passed one chamber, prohibited subjects include the notion that New Hampshire or the U.S. are fundamentally racist or sexist and that individuals are inherently oppressive due to their race or gender.

“If that’s the assumption we are going to make as a society, then we are never going to get to unity,” said Republican state Rep. Keith Ammon.

Democratic state Rep. Latha Mangipudi called the bill a blow to diversity and democracy: “This refusal of truth is insidious because it denies the reality we see in our own lives, that we experience ourselves, that I have experienced,” she told WMUR-TV earlier this month.

In states with divided governments, Democratic governors have had limited success in getting specific changes but have faced opposition to more wide-ranging police and racial equity reforms.

In North Carolina, the Republican-controlled Legislature is expected to advance measures focused on removing problem officers and helping police with mental health needs. But lawmakers will likely avoid the larger recommendations from a task force commissioned last year by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to address racial inequities in policing, criminal justice, and the court system.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, on Wednesday ordered the Wisconsin State Patrol and other state law enforcement agencies to update their use-of-force policies to bar chokeholds, unless they are a last resort. He acted after the Republican-controlled Legislature ignored a police reform package he proposed last year after Floyd’s killing.

In Minnesota, Democratic Gov. Tim Walz said after Tuesday’s verdicts that he’s ready to go on the offensive if there is no progress toward racial equity and police accountability. He said Minnesota’s politically divided Legislature gives the state a “golden opportunity” to show the world “that equity, decency, and humanity should know no political boundary.”

“I will burn my political capital on this,” he said.


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