How the U.S. could reform police in response to protests against brutality and racism


NYPD Police officers listen as Police Benevolent Association of the City of New York President Pat Lynch and representatives from other NYPD and law enforcement unions holds a news conference at the Icahn Stadium parking lot on June 9, 2020 to address the “current anti-law enforcement environment.” in New York.

Timothy A. Clary | AFP | Getty Images

Repeated police killings of black Americans have sparked the widest push for law enforcement reform in years. 

The nationwide movement fueled by George Floyd’s death last month has already kick-started change in cities and states. The coming months will help to determine just how far officials go in reshaping departments — and whether Congress will join state and local lawmakers in taking steps to overhaul policing. 

Policymakers across the country have targeted several major areas in their reform discussions, including:

  • Ensuring more transparency about police use of force and disciplinary records
  • Banning chokeholds
  • Making it easier to sue or prosecute officers who commit abuses

Activists and some Democratic officials want to reimagine the system to root out structural racism, calling to redirect chunks of police funding to social services or even replace whole departments with a new public safety system. 

As municipalities start to respond to sustained demonstrations against police brutality — including violence against protesters — significant reform at the national level is far from assured. Democrats and Republicans who want to make policing changes will have to contend with a president often reluctant to criticize officers or excessive use of force.

Reform and defund efforts take shape in cities

Certain U.S. cities have moved to either remake or cut money from their police departments as activists argue incremental changes have failed. While officials across the country have identified similar problems with the justice system, early actions indicate state and local governments could take drastically different paths as they overhaul law enforcement. 

In Minneapolis, where Floyd died after an officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, most of the city council told demonstrators they wanted to begin the process of dismantling the city’s police department amid longstanding public distrust. It will likely take Minneapolis years to decide how it would replace the police force. 

Other cities have taken the step of pledging to cut police funding as they face pressure for over-policing communities of color while neglecting key programs. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said he would cut an unspecified sum from the country’s largest police force and redirect it to youth and social services.

But de Blasio has so far not provided specific plans, which has rankled activists frustrated by the mayor’s handling of police violence and reform in recent years. Communities United for Police Reform, a coalition of organizations pushing to end discriminatory policies by the NYPD, wants the city to cut the department’s $6 billion annual budget by $1 billion in fiscal year 2021 by targeting areas such as new hiring and counterterrorism. 

“It’s very clear that in a pandemic New Yorkers need social services more than policing,” said Anthonine Pierre, deputy director of the Brooklyn Movement Center, one of the organizations that is part of Communities United for Police Reform. She added that “times have shifted and the need for policing has shifted,” especially after the coronavirus devastated the city. 

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti also announced plans to put $250 million into health care and youth jobs programs while cutting as much as $150 million from the city’s police budget. 

Many who want to reform a flawed justice system have warned against large-scale police budget cuts. “Indiscriminate cuts” that do not target specific problems in a police department budget “may actually undercut efforts” to improve law enforcement, said Taryn Merkl, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law and a former federal prosecutor.

As New York City grapples with how to reshape its police department, a flurry of activity in the state legislature this week could foreshadow changes around the country. State lawmakers voted this week to repeal a law known as 50-a, which barred the release of police disciplinary records.

Advocates such as Communities United for Police Reform have sought to roll back the measure in a push for transparency. It came under scrutiny when New York City said it could not disclose the disciplinary file of Daniel Pantaleo, the officer fired five years after his chokehold led to Eric Garner’s death in Staten Island. 

Pierre called the bill’s passage a “step forward for the rest of the country.”

The state legislature also approved a bill to criminalize police use of chokeholds. The NYPD already banned the practice, but officers such as Pantaleo continued to use it. 

During a memorial service for Floyd on Tuesday in Houston, where he lived much of his life, the city’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, said he would sign an executive order banning chokeholds and requiring police officers to give a warning before they fire a weapon. 

The role Congress can play

At the federal level, congressional Democrats have already introduced sweeping changes designed to reduce violence and address systemic racism — without cutting police funding. But it remains to be seen whether the Republican-held Senate or President Donald Trump will agree to substantive reforms. 

Congress can control the practices of federal law enforcement officers. While U.S. lawmakers have limited influence over city and state police departments, they can still affect policy by tying conditions to federal funding or grants. 

A bill introduced by House and Senate Democrats this week would make various reforms without shaking up the foundations of the U.S. police structure. It would change “qualified immunity” rules for officers in an attempt to remove a hurdle for victims of abuses or their family members who try to recover damages.

The legislation would change the federal standard for criminal misconduct to make it easier to prosecute cops. It would also create a federal registry of police misconduct and make states report uses of force to the Justice Department. 

The bill would tie federal funding for state and local departments to several reforms, such as banning chokeholds and carotid holds, stopping “no-knock” search warrants and requiring racial, religious and implicit-bias training. Calls to stop no-knock warrants, under which police can enter a home without notifying residents, have increased following the death of Breonna Taylor, a black woman who Louisville police shot dead in her apartment in March. 

As of now, Republicans appear reluctant to embrace many of the reforms in the Democratic plan. Sen. Tim Scott, one of three black senators, is leading a Republican group working on its own policing plan. 

The South Carolina senator has not released a full proposal but could do so this week. As of Tuesday, the bill would require states that get federal money to report police shootings, including information such as the age and race of the victim, according to NBC News. 

It would not bar chokeholds or no-knock warrants but instead aim to collect information on both practices, NBC reported. Like the Democratic legislation, it would classify lynching a federal hate crime. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has held up a House-passed, standalone anti-lynching bill in the Senate. 

How Trump and Biden view reform

Trump will play a huge role in determining how far overhauls go at the federal level. The president, who has in the past suggested police should use more force, has spent more time in recent weeks calling to maintain “law and order” than discussing potential reform. 

The White House aims to unveil its own reform plan in the coming days. During a planned roundtable in Dallas on Thursday, Trump could detail actions he wants to take by executive order, according to NBC. 

A Trump administration platform could include a database to track officers who face multiple accusations of misconduct. The president opposes rolling back qualified immunity, NBC reported.

Scott met with White House advisors about police reform on Tuesday. 

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has embraced more police reform plans than the man he hopes to defeat in November. He has backed Democratic proposals such as banning chokeholds, collecting data on use of force, requiring bias training and ensuring police intervene when fellow officers abuse their power. 

But Biden, who has faced backlash for his role in the 1994 crime bill that contributed to mass incarceration in the U.S., has said he does not want to cut law enforcement funding. He instead wants to direct another $300 million to community policing.

“While I do not believe federal dollars should go to police departments that are violating people’s rights or turning to violence as the first resort, I do not support defunding police,” he wrote in USA Today on Wednesday. “The better answer is to give police departments the resources they need to implement meaningful reforms, and to condition other federal dollars on completing those reforms.”

Merkl of NYU’s Brennan Center also highlighted community policing funds as a way to build trust between law enforcement and communities. She also said changing the metrics by which departments evaluate success and bolstering resources to treat people for mental illness or substance abuse rather than arresting them, among other changes, could help to root out problems in the justice system.

Merkl outlined those recommendations this week in written testimony to the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice, which the Justice Department established in January.

As activists and officials take on what will likely be a long and messy process to root out ingrained problems, Merkl said, “No one law will solve every problem related to race, policing and the criminal justice system.”

She added that the U.S. needs to “move away from the expectation that criminal law and the criminal justice system will provide redress for so many wrongs.”

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