Since George Floyd’s death last May, dozens of states and local governments have changed their laws about police behavior. And yet police officers continue to kill about three Americans each day on average, nearly identical to the rate of police killings for as long as statistics exist.
Which raises the question: Are the latest efforts to change policing — to make it less violent, especially for Black and Latino Americans — destined to fail?
Not necessarily, many experts say. They believe the recent changes are meaningful. They will probably fall well short of solving the country’s problem with needlessly violent police behavior. But the changes still appear to be substantial, even if they will take some time to have a noticeable effect.
“You actually can get a lot of common ground between police critics and police themselves,” Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown University law professor and former reserve police officer in Washington, told us. “There are plenty of places where those conversations seem to be occurring in a preliminary way.”
That common ground extends to public opinion. Most Americans disagree with sweeping criticisms of the police, like the calls to abolish police departments. (Rashida Tlaib, a Democratic congresswoman from Michigan, wrote last week on Twitter: “No more policing, incarceration, and militarization. It can’t be reformed.”) Recent polls show that most Americans say they generally trust the police, and few if any mayors, governors, congressional leaders or top members of the Biden administration share Tlaib’s view.
But many politicians and most voters do favor changes to policing, like banning chokeholds and racial profiling or mandating police body cameras. “Americans — both Democrats and Republicans — want some sort of reform,” Alex Samuels of FiveThirtyEight wrote.
The two big changes
The recent policy changes fit into two main categories. The first is a set of limits on the use of force. Sixteen states have restricted the use of so-called neck restraints, like Derek Chauvin’s use of his knee on Floyd’s neck. And 21 additional cities now require officers to intervene when they think another officer is using excessive force.
The changes have mostly been in Democratic-leaning states, but not entirely: Kentucky has limited no-knock warrants, which played a role in Breonna Taylor’s death, while Indiana, Iowa and Utah have restricted neck restraints. (Republican legislators in some states are pushing bills that go in the other direction, by strengthening penalties for people who injure officers, for instance, or by preventing cities from cutting police budgets.)
The second category involves police accountability. Several states have mandated the use of body cameras. Colorado, New Mexico, Massachusetts and Connecticut have made it easier for citizens to sue police officers, as has New York City.
In Maryland, David Moon, a state legislator, said that the recent changes were “just light-years beyond” those enacted after Freddie Gray died in the custody of Baltimore police six years ago. The new laws “basically blew up the old system and tried to create a new structure for discipline,” Moon told The Washington Post.
One significant part of the policy changes: States are enacting them, forcing local police departments to abide by them. “States had given great leeway to local jurisdictions to decide how to police themselves,” The Times’s Michael Keller told us. “Now, states are starting to take more control.”
The bottom line
It’s too early to know whether all of the attention on policing after Floyd’s death will amount to widespread changes. “Police organizations have an amazing ability to resist change when there’s no real buy-in from the rank and file,” Brooks said. But there does seem to be a greater recognition of what policing has in common with virtually every other human endeavor: It works better when it includes clear standards and outside accountability.
“What we’ve seen since George Floyd’s death — and really since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 — is a widespread acknowledgment that law enforcement needs new rules and policies,” my colleague John Eligon, who has covered policing extensively, said. “But there is still a great frustration among many activists and community members I talk to who say that the changes do not go nearly far enough.”
He added: “They see tinkering around the edges that does not really change the culture of police departments or solve the big problem: that police in America are still killing people every day.”
News from the Chauvin trial:
In closing statements, the prosecution urged jurors: “Believe your eyes. What you saw, you saw.” The defense argued that Chauvin had not “intentionally, purposefully applied an unlawful force” to Floyd.
The jurors have begun deliberating.
The judge said that Representative Maxine Waters’s suggestion that protesters would “get more confrontational” if the jury found Chauvin not guilty could be grounds for an appeal.
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“The breakaway clubs have, effectively, sealed off the summit,” The Times’s Rory Smith says. “It is what makes this such a compelling, and dangerous, moment.”
Rory and Tariq Panja have written an explainer with more details, and you can follow the story by reading Rory’s newsletter.
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Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. — David
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Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti and Sanam Yar contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at [email protected].
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