It is rare for a police officer to be charged for killing someone on the job, and even more rare for them to be convicted (since 2005, only seven police officers have been convicted of murder in officer involved shootings.) When former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd and sentenced to 22½ years in June, it was one of the longest prison sentences ever issued to a former police officer for the unlawful use of deadly force.
The case led to urgent calls for policing reform and spurred renewed efforts to address issues that are decades old. Since Floyd’s death, more than 2,000 policing-related bills have been introduced nationwide, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Chief among them is the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which passed the United States House of Representatives in March and has been the subject of ongoing negotiations in the U.S. Senate. The sweeping legislation addresses a wide range of policies and issues regarding policing practices and law enforcement accountability. It increases accountability for law enforcement misconduct, restricts the use of certain policing practices, enhances transparency and data collection, and establishes best practices and training requirements.
Specifically, the bill establishes a framework to prevent and remedy racial profiling by law enforcement; bans “qualified immunity,” which shields law enforcement from certain lawsuits; and limits the unnecessary use of force and restricts the use of no-knock warrants, chokeholds, and carotid holds. The legislation also creates a National Police Misconduct Registry to compile data on complaints and records of police misconduct in an effort to bolster accountability.
The House had passed a version of the bill in 2020, but the Republican-controlled Senate never took it up. This time, Democrats have the support of the White House and a slight edge in the Senate. However, substantial changes will likely need to be made in order to win over enough Republican senators to pass the measure.
State legislatures are also looking at pieces of legislation. In April, Maryland became the first state to repeal its Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, a set of legislative protections that included deleting records of complaints against an officer after a period of time. Cities like New York have also acknowledged there are systemic issues and implemented department reform. However, experts and advocates recommend creating uniform laws that address issues including policing practices, racial bias training, and accountability on the federal, state, and local levels.
Unfortunately, the history of policing reform can be characterized by what Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who prosecuted the Floyd case, calls a "cycle of inaction." Time and again, an act of violence will lead to unrest, followed by commissions, studies, and recommendations for reform. Then nothing happens. The Washington Post examined three historic firsts in policing reforms, including the effort to stop racial profiling by New Jersey state troopers and the use of federal intervention to force change on police practices in Pittsburgh. In Pittsburgh, after the death of a Black business man at the hands of a White police officer, the Department of Justice investigated and oversaw efforts to address a pattern of abuses in the police department. But when the federal monitors moved on nearly a decade later, the pressure for reform evaporated.
According to the Post’s report, attempts at reform “have been stifled by entrenched cultures, systemic dysfunction, shifts in leadership, and swings in public mood. Outrage at officers’ conduct eventually gives way to demands for aggressive enforcement when crime flares, and the cycle continues.”
Derek Chauvin’s conviction was a step in the right direction, but there is still plenty of work to be done on police reform – and restoring public confidence in police.
The contents of this writing are intended for general information purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion in any specific facts or circumstances.