How the police have – and haven’t – changed since George Floyd


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A black Massachusetts man alleges police accosted him in a 2021 mistaken identity case, pinning him with a knee to his neck. According to a lawsuit filed this week, Donovan Johnson yelled “I can’t breathe!” but the officer “continued to pin Mr Johnson to the ground with his knee”.

In Houston, another black man was fatally shot in the back of the head and neck by an officer investigating an alleged shoplifting incident at a dollar store in July. Body camera footage released last week shows the man, Roderick Brooks, 47, briefly grabbed the officer’s Taser before the shooting, but dropped it when the officer took his gun.

More than two years after millions of Americans took to the streets following the murder of George Floyd, familiar stories of police brutality persist. In numbers, 2021 was the deadliest for police shootings since the Washington Post began tracking them in 2015. The Mapping Police Violence database found similar results.

This does not mean nothing changed. According to a database kept by researchers at Bowling Green State University, the number of officers charged with homicide or manslaughter for on-duty killings may be on the rise. Seven officers were charged in 2017, with a slight increase each year until 2021, when a record 21 were charged. However, Professor Philip Stinson, who has been tracking the data since 2005, warned NBC News that the sample was too small to consider the change statistically significant.

The US Department of Justice has also become more involved in policing. On Thursday, four current and former Louisville police officers were charged with federal crimes related to the investigation and raid that led to the 2020 shooting death of Breonna Taylor.

At the local level, many departments have begun experimenting with new approaches, such as alternative response programs that send unarmed counselors or social workers to certain calls. The Marshall Project examined one such program in Olympia, Washington, which became a model for other cities in 2020. Other local departments attempted cultural change at the hands of charismatic new leaders. Our recent “Changing the Police” podcast, produced with NPR’s Embedded, walks through a case study of this path to reform — and its limitations — in the Yonkers Police Department.

At the state level, legislatures have passed hundreds of police reform laws since the summer of 2020. Politico had 243 as of May 2021. A common reform goal has been to ban or restrict the use by the “chokehold” police (although states all define this term differently). In Massachusetts, where Johnson alleges he was pinned by an officer’s knee on his neck, the move had been explicitly banned two months earlier. It is unclear what this would mean for the officer charged in the lawsuit if the allegations are proven.

At the federal level, bipartisan negotiations on police reform died in Congress last year, followed by a consolation executive order signed by President Joe Biden in May. The measure replaced an ineffective and largely forgotten executive order signed by former President Donald Trump in 2020. The Biden order was, like Trump’s, a reflection of the president’s limited power over state and local police, and received a rather lukewarm response from proponents of the reform. . Most of its key provisions, like bolstering federal misconduct reporting and use-of-force databases, are slated to go into effect later this year and through 2023.

This week, the issue of federal policing was reignited by the announcement of Biden’s “Plan for a Safer America,” a $37 billion public safety funding proposal centered on grants to local departments. to hire 100,000 new officers. The effort appears to be, at least in part, a messaging strategy by Democrats ahead of the midterm elections, where many, especially in swing districts, feel vulnerable to Republican attacks on crime.

The package was crushed by members of the progressive and black caucuses – some of whom were “livid” about the language of the proposal, according to Politico, but it may only be on hiatus. “The increase in police funding desired by Biden is still likely,” writes Alexander Lekhtman for Filter Magazine, “but progressive lawmakers should have time to pursue their wish that this be coupled with significant police accountability measures. police”.

As written, the plan also provides funds to encourage local governments to fund alternative response programs, violence cessation programs, housing and drug treatment. Some have criticized the proposal as “mixed messaging”.

A challenge for the Biden plan, if it does eventually pass, is that many departments say they are struggling to close the openings they already have. That recruiting pool could shrink even further if police departments raise the minimum age for officers to 25, as one columnist argues, citing emerging science on age, brain development and impulsivity.

One way to reopen this pool: Recruit more women. An initiative aims for women to make up at least 30% of the police force by 2030, and NPR examines how a high percentage of women has affected the culture of the department in Madison, Wisconsin.

Not everyone is sold on this approach to solving policing problems. “Maybe they’re not screaming as much, but they’re still arresting us,” local activist Brandi Grayson told NPR. “Maybe they don’t shoot us, but we still get arrested, we still get tickets.”


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