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Policing Reform, Civilian Oversight And More: After Months Of Protest, Voters Decide

Police officers stand guard outside the 4th District Police Station during the second night of protest against the death of Karon Hylton on Oct. 28 in Washington, D.C.
Tasos Katopodis
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Police officers stand guard outside the 4th District Police Station during the second night of protest against the death of Karon Hylton on Oct. 28 in Washington, D.C.

This summer's massive protests over police brutality, spurred by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, demanded significant changes in policing.

Those protests have moved some cities and states to "reimagine" what departments could look like through changes in funding and legislation. Some efforts stalled, like in Minneapolis where George Floyd was killed.

Some saw success, like in Colorado, New Yorkand Virginia, which all passed sweeping new laws addressing use of force, funding and community oversight, among other things. The effects of those new laws won't be known for a while.

Other efforts that deal with specific reform measures are on the Nov. 3 ballot in several cities and states.

Here's a look at what changes are being sought:


Seven local ballot initiatives center around civilian oversight of police, shifting money from criminal justice to social services, and evaluating the size of police departments.

Los Angeles County: Measure J, Los Angeles County Community Investment and Alternatives to Incarceration. This measure would amend the county's charter and require the allocation of money from the general fund (no less than 10% by the summer of 2024) for housing, mental health care and programs considered alternatives to incarceration. The money could not be spent on the Sheriff's department and other county law enforcement agencies. Supporters say it resets county spending to address long standing inequities- especially in communities of color.

Oakland:Measure S1would strengthen oversight of the Police Department by building on an earlier measure approved four years ago which established a civilian based Police Commission. It expands the powers of the commission and the Community Police Review Agency (CPRA). It creates the Office of Inspector General, which would review cases of police misconduct and CPRA investigations. It also makes the commission independent—taking it out of the city and police department's chain of command. Backers of the measure say it increases public trust and police accountability.

San Diego,Measure B. In recent years, activists have pushed for a stronger community review board. Measure B changes civilian oversight of the San Diego Police Department from the advisory Community Review Board on Police Practices to the Commission on Police Practices which would have the power to subpoena witnesses and conduct investigations into police officer misconduct. It would review complaints against officers and investigate all deaths that are a result of police interaction, including in-custody deaths. The commission would be independent of the Mayor and the city police department.

San Francisco:Proposition D, Sheriff Oversight. The measure would set up two new oversight bodies for the San Francisco County Sheriff's Department. The Sheriff's Department Oversight Board would make policy recommendations. The Sheriff Department's Office of Inspector General would conduct investigations of in-custody deaths and complaints and make policy recommendations on police use of force. The ballot question comes in the wake of misconduct allegations that have been made about the Sheriff's Department in recent years.

The city's Proposition E calls for amending the city's charter to remove the mandatory police staffing level of a minimum of 1,971 full-duty sworn officers. Instead it requires the police department to conduct regular evaluations — every two years — and to recommend staffing levels in a report to the Police Commission. The Commission would hold a public hearing on the report and consider it when approving the Police Department's budget. City officials call the current staffing requirement arbitrary, the San Francisco Police Association says the department is understaffed and opposes the change

San Jose: Measure G expands the authority of San Jose's independent police auditor to review reports and records related to officer-involved shootings and uses of force that resulted in injury or death. Currently the auditor does not have access to those documents. In September, the City Council approved a plan to work with the public to address several criminal justice issues including use of force complaints.

Sonoma County: Proposition Pcalls for a yes or no on a measure to "increase law enforcement transparency and accountability and to build public trust in County government and the Sheriff's office by expanding the authority and independence of a law enforcement oversight body. The measure would expand the powers of the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach(IOLERO) to investigate Sheriff related issues. It would also expand and revise the duties and power of the Community Advisory Council. The Sonoma County's Law Enforcement Association and Deputy Sheriff's Association oppose the measure while the former head of IOLERO supports it.


Illinois has two advisory referendaon the ballot in DuPage County — an area 20 miles west of Chicago. Both measures are a response, perhaps, to the calls to "defund the police." Historically, the largest portion of the county's budget, about 47%, has been dedicated to law enforcement, including the DuPage County Sheriff, the State's Attorney, the Public Defender and other offices. The Law Enforcement Budget Advisory asks voters whether the county should continue to consider law enforcement and public safety as its top budgeting priority. A second advisory initiative asks whether DuPage County should continue to fund and support training methods that decrease the risk of injury to officers and suspects. In an editorial, the Daily Herald, a newspaper which covers DuPage County, suggests county officials filled the ballot with advisory questions to remove a ballot question that would require consolidating county government.


In 2017, Akron was reportedly the first city in Ohio to provide a body camera for all police officers. In an effort to increase "transparency and accountability," Issue 2on the November ballot would require recordings from police body and dashboard cameras that document police use of force that results in death or serious injury be released to the public, as long as the release is permissible under state or federal law.

Voters in Columbus, meanwhile, will decide whether the city should create a Civilian Police Review Board to carry out investigations of alleged police misconduct. The amendment to the city's charter would also create an Inspector General for the Police Department. Columbus does not have a civilian police review board. Supporters say this measure would increase public trust and police accountability. In published reports, the head of the police union says the union is committed to change but calls the measure an attack on collective bargaining rights.

Protesters chant while marching to the Penumbra Kelly Building during a protest against racial injustice and police brutality on Oct. 2 in Portland, Ore. Portland's regular protests continued this week, staying mostly peaceful and without confrontations between police and demonstrators.
Nathan Howard / Getty Images
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Protesters chant while marching to the Penumbra Kelly Building during a protest against racial injustice and police brutality on Oct. 2 in Portland, Ore. Portland's regular protests continued this week, staying mostly peaceful and without confrontations between police and demonstrators.


Portland has seen months of nightly protests following the death of George Floyd while in police custody. With Measure 26-217voters will decide whether to amend the city's charter and create a new independent police oversight board that would have the power to discipline and fire police officers. Currently, the police chief and the police commissioner handle discipline and a city agency, the Independent Police Review investigates complaints against police officers.


Two cities have police reform measures are on the ballot — Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

On Oct. 26 — a week before Election Day — angry protests broke out in Philadelphia after police fatally shot Walter Wallace Jr., a 27-year-old Black man. Advocates who say they are creating a strategy to hold police accountable say the shooting is one reason why they are calling for a stronger civilian agency to investigate claims of police misconduct.

Philadelphia, Question 3: Police Commission would amend the city's charter and replace the current Police Advisory Commission, which critics say has not provided effective oversight, with the Citizens Oversight Committee.

Philadelphia, Question 1: Stop and Frisk asks voters whether city law should eliminate "unconstitutional stop and frisk" policing. The measure would not entirely ban the practice. It states an officer must have reasonable suspicion that a person is engaged in criminal activity in order to stop that person, and an officer can't stop someone based on "their race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religious affiliation or expression or other protected characteristic."

In Pittsburgh, Ballot Question 3 asks whether voters should approve expanding the powers of the Independent Citizen Police Review Board to investigate police misconduct and improve community relations. The question would require police officers to participate in investigations of misconduct and officers could be terminated if they failed to cooperate.


In Kyle, about 20 miles south of Austin, Proposition D is a police department oversight proposal would amend the city's charter and authorize the city council to review police department procedures and set up an police oversight committee.


Tumultuous protests in Seattle this summer led to an unsuccessful fight to slash the police budget by 50% and the resignation of the city's police chief. Now, there are four referenda on the ballot for voters in King County, which includes Seattle. Many of the recommendations were made by the county's Charter Review Commission and before the widespread protests over police brutality.

King County Charter Amendment 1 would amend the county charter to require investigations anytime a person dies in the custody of law enforcement and to provide a public attorney to represent the family of the deceased during an inquest proceeding.

King County Charter Amendment 4 would give the county's Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO) ability to subpoena witnesses, documents and other evidence in its investigations of law enforcement.

King County Charter Amendment 5would change the office of the sheriff from an elected position to an appointed one. Current King County voters elect the sheriff to a four year term. Under the amendment, the County Executive would appoint the sheriff subject to approval by the county council.

King County Charter Amendment 6 would allow the King County Council to define the duties of the Sheriff's office instead of, as currently, by statute. Supporters say that would allow diverse voices to propose changes like providing alternatives to 911. Opponents, part of a Save the Sheriff's office campaign, say the measure is an attempt to defund the office.

Statewide Criminal Justice Ballot Questions

Several ballot measures for all voters in specific states address criminal justice issues well beyond policing and could bring significant changes. Here are some of the key initiatives:

In four states — Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota — voters will decide whether their state will join 11 others where recreational marijuana is already legal. A medical marijuana initiative is also on the ballot in South Dakota and in Mississippi.

In California, police reform bills, like a ban on the carotid chokehold and other neck restraints, did pass this year. Despite demands calling for overhauling the state's criminal justice system, several police reform bills failed or were never brought up for a vote. California residents will make those decisions directly now with a vote on three referenda on the statewide ballot.

Proposition 25: Replace Cash Bail with Risk Assessments Referendum. This measure calls for voters to decide whether to keep the current bail system or uphold Senate Bill 10 which abolished cash bail but was put on hold before it took effect after activists gathered signatures for a referendum. SB10 would require judges to use, what are now considered controversial, risk assessment tools to evaluate whether a person should be released or kept in jail.

Proposition 17: The Voting Rights Restoration for Persons on Parole. California allows people who have finished their prison terms to vote. A yes vote for Proposition 17 would allow people released on parole to do so. The Prison Policy Institute estimates that move could restore voting rights for more than 119,000 individuals

Proposition 20: Criminal Sentencing, Parole and DNA Collection Initiative- This measure changes sentencing laws passed earlier in California aimed at reducing incarceration. It restricts parole for offenses currently considered nonviolent. It also authorizes felony sentences (longer prison terms) for offenses currently treated as misdemeanors. Crimes like unlawful use of a credit card or theft of a vehicle or firearm, all misdemeanors, could be charged as more serious crimes. The measure also requires the collection of DNA for certain misdemeanors.


Proposal 2: The Search Warrant for Electronic Data Amendment addresses how changes in technology affect privacy and crime. This measure is a constitutional amendment which would require a search warrant to access a person's electronic data and electronic communications. That's just in the same way current law protects a person's house or papers from unreasonable search or seizure.


State Question 805: the Criminal History in Sentencing and Sentence Modification Initiative. Oklahoma has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country. This measure would amend the state's constitution and prohibit using a person's past nonviolent felony convictions to impose an enhanced sentence that would add additional time to the sentence of a person convicted of a new nonviolent felony. The amendment would also allow people in Oklahoma convicted of a nonviolent felony currently serving time on an enhanced sentence to petition the court for a shorter sentence.

Nebraska and Utah — Amendments To End Slavery

Twelve states in the country have constitutional amendments, nearly identical to the Thirteenth Amendment, which prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for people convicted of crimes. Advocates say the loophole allows states to force people serving prison time to engage in labor (for minimal pay) and making the change would not prevent voluntary opportunities. Voters in Nebraska and Utah will decide whether to remove the exception as they vote on Nebraska Amendment 1 and Utah Amendment C, the Remove Slavery as Punishment for Crime from Constitution Amendment

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

Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.