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With Slow Progress On Federal Level, Police Reform Remains Patchwork Across U.S.

Demonstrators in Minneapolis ahead of the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin, who has since been convicted of murdering George Floyd.
Chandan Khanna
AFP via Getty Images
Demonstrators in Minneapolis ahead of the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin, who has since been convicted of murdering George Floyd.

One week ago, people celebrated in the streets of Minneapolis as a judge read the guilty verdicts in the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin, convicted of murdering George Floyd.

In the days since, the Justice Department announced it would investigate whether the police departments in Minneapolis and Louisville, where Breonna Taylor was killed by police, engage in a "pattern or practice" of discrimination or excessive force.

But even as advocates and family members of those killed by police welcomed those developments, they said the need for structural change to policing has not disappeared — a point underscored, they said, by the police killings of Black people during and since the Chauvin trial in Brooklyn Center, Minn., Columbus, Ohio, and Elizabeth City, N.C.

"I don't want there to be any more George Floyds. It seems like this is a never-ending cycle," said Philonise Floyd, who since his brother's death has spoken before Congress and the United Nations Human Rights Council about police reform.

A flurry of legislative and policy proposals at every level of government in the U.S. followed last summer's protests. Cities such as Minneapolis, Seattle and Austin committed to rethinking police funding. Lawmakers in all 50 states put forward more than 2,000 bills related to policing in the last year.

But successes have been patchwork, mostly concentrated in blue states and cities facing outcry over local incidents of deadly force by police officers. Many other statehouses have seen little concerted effort to reform policing. And in Congress, partisan disagreements have so far prevented any bill from passing.

Reform in the U.S. has frequently come in bite-size portions as each high-profile death prompts scrutiny of a specific slice of policing.

Bans on neck restraints or chokeholds, called for by activists after Eric Garner was killed by police in Staten Island in 2014, gained renewed attention this summer after Chauvin knelt on Floyd's neck, another type of neck restraint.

And after Breonna Taylor was killed in her apartment late at night by Louisville police who had obtained a no-knock warrant, several states and cities moved to ban such warrants, including Louisville.

In Cleveland, where a police officer shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice within two seconds of arriving at a park where Rice was playing with a realistic toy gun in 2014, officials are reportedly preparing to roll out new policies around how police should interact with anyone under 18 years old.

Last year's nationwide protests turned up the pressure on lawmakers nationwide, and since then, about a dozen states have succeeded at passing more comprehensive legislation, according to a review of policing-related bills tracked by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In states such as New York, Marylandand Washington, where statehouses are controlled by Democrats, lawmakers have moved to redefine use of force policies, impose body-worn camera rules, require officers to intervene when they see another officer using excessive force, and increase independent oversight over police agencies.

A bill in Colorado signed into law last June made that state the "ground zero" for police reform, Howard Henderson, founding director of the Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University, told theMountain West News Bureau.

That bill, known in Colorado as Senate Bill 217, imposed wide-ranging new rules on law enforcement agencies and prosecutors handling police use of force cases. It also permanently revokes professional certification for officers who have been found in court to have used inappropriate force, preventing them from being re-hired elsewhere.

Perhaps most notably, the bill stripped Colorado officers of the protection known as "qualified immunity," a series of legal precedents that has long kept police officers from being held personally liable from many claims of wrongdoing while on-duty.

Now, Colorado officers are no longer able to evoke qualified immunity as a defense, and they can be sued for up to $25,000.

"There's no other state legislature in this country that has been able to do what Colorado has done to date. It just hasn't happened," said Henderson.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear signs a bill enacting a partial ban on no-knock warrants, as Breonna Taylor's mother, Tamika Palmer, stands to his right.
Timothy D. Easley / AP
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear signs a bill enacting a partial ban on no-knock warrants, as Breonna Taylor's mother, Tamika Palmer, stands to his right.

But reforms have been more reserved in politically mixed states. In Minnesota, outcry over Floyd's death prompted the governor to call for a special session of the state's divided legislature last summer. Lawmakers passed a compromise bill that banned chokeholds and modified deadly force rules but left activists calling for more.

A new bill, which passed the Minnesota House last week, would go further. It would allow mental health crisis teams to answer some 911 calls rather than police, and it would ban traffic stops over broken tail lights, air fresheners hanging from rearview mirrors, or out-of-date vehicle registration — the reasons cited for traffic stops that ended with the deaths of Philando Castile in 2016 and Daunte Wright earlier this month. But the leader of the Republican-controlled Senate has not committed to passing any additional reform legislation.

In some Republican-controlled states such as Ohio and Texas, lawmakers have not passed any policing-related legislation since last summer's demonstrations. The same is true of Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill earlier this month that increases penalties for protesters.

The mixed results have focused attention on Congress to enact federal legislation that could help bring consistency to the nation's 18,000-some law enforcement agencies.

A growing number of Democrats, advocates, and family members of those killed by police have called out in recent weeks for legislators to pass the wide-ranging George Floyd Justice In Policing Act.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, and Senator Amy Klobuchar all called for the bill's passage during Thursday's funeral for Daunte Wright. After Chauvin's conviction last Tuesday, President Biden and Vice President Harris urged Congress to pass the bill.

"This verdict brings us a step closer. And the fact is, we still have work to do. We still must reform the system," Harris said.

Talks over a compromise are underway in the Senate, where Democrats would need the support of at least 10 Republicans to overcome a filibuster. The bill was passed by the House in March.

The federal bill would create a national police misconduct registry and require all federal, state and local law enforcement to submit reports about complaints and discipline. The bill would also ban the use of chokeholds and no-knock warrants in drug cases, although those bans would only apply to federal officers, who make up a small portion of the nation's police forces.

Most controversially, the Democrats' bill seeks to end qualified immunity for officers. That provision has drawn the most opposition from Republicans and police unions.

Republican Sen. Tim Scott, the party's only Black senator, is leading Republican efforts to find a deal with Democrats.

Scott, who himself has been stopped by police even while serving as U.S. senator, proposed a policing bill of his own last summer. Compared to the Democrats' bill, Scott's bill focused on training and reporting rather than outright bans on things like no-knock warrants; it also did not address qualified immunity.

Scott recently met with the Democrats leading the effort in their respective chambers, Rep. Karen Bass of California and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, to discuss the bill. Afterward, Scott said the group had "made tremendous progress."

"I'm hopeful because I'm working with Senator Scott," said Bass in an interview with NPR last week. "I believe that if he is supportive of the bill, that we will be able to round up the Republican senators that we need."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.