The murder of George Floyd on the 25th of May 2020 served as a catalyst for protests across the United States and the globe, denouncing racial discrimination and demanding reform within law enforcement. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, proposed by House Democrats and sponsored by congresswoman Karen Bass (D-CA), seeks to tackle issues surrounding police brutality and racial profiling, representing not only a response to George Floyd’s killing, but the historic injustices suffered by America’s Black population at the hands of the US policing system. This raises the question of what exactly the bill comprises, its perceived effectiveness, and the current likelihood of putting the bill into full effect.
What does the bill consist of?
The act aims to combat systemic racism in the police force, as well as fostering greater accountability for offenders in several different ways. Firstly, the bill seeks to ban no-knock warrants in federal drug cases. A highly influential part of the bill, this policy aims to prevent fatal cases from recurring, tragically demonstrated last year by the fatal shooting of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor by police following an issued no-knock warrant in Louisville, Kentucky. The bill also seeks to ban both chokeholds and carotid holds, policing methods that have continuously proven fatal, as was the case of Eric Garner in 2014.
Police accountability continues to be a vital discussion in America. The guilty verdict in Derek Chauvin’s trial in April was celebrated by the masses gathered outside the courthouse, and was applauded across America and the globe given the rarity of police prosecution in America. In fact, of the 7,666 police officers who were involved in fatal incidents between 2013 and 2019 in the US, a mere 25 were convicted- a sobering reality.
With this in mind, the bill puts an end to “qualified immunity,” a principle that operates as a protective barrier for US police, shielding them from several types of civil lawsuits. Currently, officers are prosecuted on the grounds of intended, or ‘wilful,’ criminal activity. This bill, however, simplifies the process of prosecuting a police officer by setting the legal standard to that of an act of “recklessness.” Put simply, the bill allows for an officer to be prosecuted not only for intended criminal actions, but for a reckless disregard for human life through their actions.
Racial profiling has time and time again proven to be a critical problem in America, plaguing America’s African American population in particular. As such, a consequential term of the bill is to ban racial, religious, and discriminatory profiling by law enforcement agencies at the local, state, and federal levels, whilst also introducing training against discriminatory profiling.
A common response to multiple crimes committed by police is to fire offenders. Despite this, in some cases police officers opt to apply to serve in other federal stations without encountering preventative measures, a routine that fails to hold offending officers truly accountable. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act thus demands the creation of a national police misconduct registry to fracture this routine, whilst there are also plans for demilitarizing the police force at both state and federal level by limiting the amount of military-grade equipment given to law enforcement agencies. Another idea suggested by the bill is the improvement of “pattern and practice” investigations of police departments by granting the Justice Department subpoena power and enabling state attorney generals to form their own investigations.
A step in the right direction?
The proposed bill is constructive, simply because it tackles elements of policing that remain insufficiently addressed or have been addressed haphazardly. But what differentiates the Justice in Policing Act from previous legislation? After all, there have been several attempts at police reform. Yet, while some have had a considerable impact, others have been rather ineffective.
Dating back to the 1960s, the Supreme Court's monumental ruling in Mapp v. Ohio in 1961 established that illegally obtained evidence cannot be used in a trial when pressing criminal charges against the defendant. In the 70s, the Knapp Commission in New York investigated corruption and aimed to foster more accountability within the police force, but ultimately proved more focused on individual cases, neglecting corruption within federal organizations and having limited effects upon battling corruption within law enforcement.
In this light, the Justice in Policing Act has much greater potential for reducing police corruption, as it tackles corruption on a more institutional level by creating a national police misconduct registry. Banning no-knock warrants in federal drug cases could also serve as a preventative measure against unlawful shootings on the grounds of false accusations, which disproportionately affects demographics living in deprived areas.
Preventing fired officers from joining another force also represents a step in the right direction, as it eradicates potential perpetrators and could prove instrumental in establishing greater trust between civilians and law enforcement. The same concept is reflected in other areas of society, such as the health sector. A qualified doctor, for example, would in most cases lose their license to become a practicing doctor if engaged in wrongful activity. Hence, if individuals from other professions face tougher repercussions for their unlawful actions, why can’t the same rules apply within law enforcement?
Admittedly, a lack of police officers required to maintain order causes concern, yet the Crime Bill of 1994 - seeking to respond to this exact issue - proved ineffective, failing to achieve a positive correlation between the number of police officers with the level of safety on the streets. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was birthed in the mid-1990s as part of a plan to bring more safety to the streets of America. More commonly known as the Crime Bill, this plan resulted in increased funding for prison and prevention programs as well as a drastic increase in the number of employed police officers.
Nonetheless, the bill had several negative effects, notably its disproportionately impacts upon the African-American community via the mass incarceration of a generation of Black men. Thus, whilst former President Bill Clinton claimed to be providing safer streets, the streets remained relatively unchanged. Perhaps, then, it is not the quantity, but the quality of police training that improves the practice of law enforcement in America.
The early 2000s and 2010s marked a process of de-escalation and community policing. In 2014, former President Barack Obama’s Task Force of 21st Century Policing called for better relations between civilians and police. But the Justice in Policing Act, as opposed to some previous attempts at police reform, appears more transparent and direct in responding to prominent issues concerning police violence.
Where does the bill stand now?
Whilst the bill represents a step forward in police reform, whether or not it will pass Congress remains to be seen. Indeed, despite passing the House with a Democratic majority, the bill has yet to pass the Senate, in which 10 Republicans are needed to break the chamber's stifling 60-vote filibuster rule. Republicans and Democrats don’t see eye-to-eye on the legislation, with Republicans instead proposing Senator Tim Scott’s plan to decrease the use of chokeholds, but crucially not banning them.
The current NYC mayoral election has sparked debates on police reform, and whilst this is positive, conversations surrounding police reform on a state level remain limited, and shall remain so if similar federal efforts prove stagnant.
Despite the urgency of police reform on a federal level, and despite the far reaching reforms the bill proposes, Republican intransigence and Democratic division, a less effective bill is expected to be negotiated due to the necessity of a mutual agreement between both chambers.
Ultimately, the real question is whether the barriers of internal division among the Democrats, opposition from the Republicans, and the filibuster rule will deter the benefits of this bill from being applied to American society.
Image Credit: Chad Davis via Flickr