After deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, sweeping police reform has yet to happen
President Joe Biden took office in a city protected by a standing army two weeks after a pro-Trump mob overran the US Capitol. Scientists developed vaccines against a new virus, the seriousness of which the country was only beginning to grapple with at the time of Taylor’s death.
Politicians across the country adopted the message of reform after a week of protests, unrest and looting in cities across the country, seizing on a movement led by activists for years. The wide-scale unrest in late May and early June was prompted by the death of George Floyd after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck during an arrest. His death brought renewed attention to Taylor’s fatal shooting.
“It was literally the largest protest movement, the biggest protest movement in the history of the United States, that really strongly indicated that we the people don’t find the use of force reasonable,” said Christy Lopez, a professor at Georgetown who was a deputy chief in the civil rights division at the US Department of Justice for seven years.
Despite the House passage of police reform legislation — first last summer and again this month — the bill, named after Floyd, has not passed the Senate. The legislation would ban chokeholds and makes it easier to pursue police misconduct claims.
Sweeping reform over the last year has largely been elusive. Congress is limited in what it can impose on local police departments, even if it found the political will. Federal legislators were unable to agree on change last summer, when attention was greatest and calls for reform the loudest.
A loud chorus calls for change
Taylor died on March 13, 2020, as states across the country were asking residents to comply with stay-at-home orders, shutting down businesses and discouraging travel.
Most national media didn’t devote significant time to her story for two months, until after attorneys for her family spoke publicly May 11. Floyd died two weeks after Taylor’s death gained national attention.
Video of Floyd’s arrest and death surfaced not long later, leading to a week of demonstrations across the country, with other occasionally violent protests popping up throughout the summer in response to new incidents of questionable use of force by police officers.
Floyd’s death and subsequent calls for change also brought renewed focus on Taylor’s death, and one officer who fired into her apartment was fired in late June. The attention on police led to calls to overhaul policing, from an outright abolition of police departments to changing their responsibilities or the laws that they’re tasked with enforcing.
The calls to abolish, defund, or overhaul policing came as most major American cities saw historic increases in homicides. Calls to divorce police from calls of people having mental health crises came as Covid-19 swept through the country, exacerbating financial problems in cities which saw tax revenues decline as demand for social and health services grew exponentially.
Congress heard, voted on, but ultimately failed to pass the bill overhauling policing introduced in the weeks after Floyd’s death. Democrats in the House of Representatives again passed the bill in early March, this time with Biden in the White House and Democrats in control of the House and Senate, but the margin of Democratic control in the Senate is narrow.
In the Taylor case, two other officers involved in the raid leading to Taylor’s death were fired in December. None of the officers were charged in her death, though the first officer fired faced charges in connection with the raid.
In the Floyd case, the officer who knelt on his neck is set to go on trial, with jury selection set to begin on Monday.
Biden’s nominee for attorney general, Merrick Garland, will likely be confirmed by the Senate this week. Garland has promised to emphasize professionalism and the rule of law across the Justice Department.
But even with more favorable conditions, there is no easy path to national reform.
“You know, we can call for all kinds of reforms and we can even come up with good ideas, but implementing the reform is a whole different ball game,” said Sue Rahr, executive director of Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission. Her agency trains officers across Washington state, including training aimed at reducing the likelihood of officers using force.
“(Reform) can’t be done independently by police departments. It requires the entire government to take a role in supporting that reform.”
‘Reform takes time’
The “defund the police” movement that had been simmering for years in cities across the country grew after the deaths of Floyd and Taylor. Some protesters have argued for outright abolition of police forces while others have called for shifting of funds from police to other social service agencies.
As the defund movement grew, Republican politicians used it to paint Democratic politicians as supporting the sometimes-violent protests across the country. After wide-scale unrest in late May and early June, Biden said he did not support defunding police and instead called for more money for training and non-police responses to mental health emergencies.
And during a meeting in Georgia, Biden told leaders of seven civil rights organizations that the topic of police reform should be avoided before the Georgia runoff elections because Republicans have seized on the “defund the police” movement to paint Democrats as radical and anti-police.
“They’ve already labeled us as being ‘defund the police’ anything we put forward in terms of the organizational structure to change policing,” Biden said. “That’s how they beat the living hell out of us across the country, saying that we’re talking about defunding the police. We’re not. We’re talking about holding them accountable. We’re talking about giving them money to do the right things.”
Democratic candidates won both runoff elections, which resulted in control of the Senate switching from Republicans to Democrats.
Biden promised civil rights leaders structural changes to policing and said he wanted mental health clinicians available on 911 calls and spending money to help police work “with less force and more understanding.”
But Biden’s public proposals do not speak to the structural changes he mentioned, and it’s not clear how he’ll use the Justice Department or other federal agencies to influence the conduct and governance of 18,000 law enforcement agencies.
Moreover, Biden’s proposals released as part of his transition plan lack a broad reimagining of policing that protesters, activists and the most liberal members of the Democratic Party have demanded, consistent with how he and campaign surrogates have framed him as a centrist.
Democratic congressional aides caution that the narrow margins in both chambers will make passing any legislation difficult, and Biden might be able to accomplish more through executive orders than Congress. Even with Democrats controlling both chambers and a Democrat in the White House, it’s possible they won’t be able to enact a bill many of them championed.
Absent federal leadership, cities and states have moved on their own in the name of reform. More than two dozen states have enacted laws changing the way police work, from banning neck holds that restrict either airflow or blood (or both) to requiring the reporting of data from local departments up to state governments. Some efforts have been sweeping, and others more technical or dealing with limited issues.
“Reform takes time. And sometimes you have to push hard to establish what is right,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. “But just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean you shouldn’t attempt it.”
Less ‘warrior’ and more ‘guardian’
The state of Washington employs a man whose job is to manage de-escalation training for every police officer working at the 300 police departments across the state.
His name is Sean Hendrickson. Every new recruit goes through the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission. Every officer who trains others in the state is first trained here.
He’s teaching a philosophy of law enforcement at odds with the last two decades of policing philosophy. Less “warrior,” more “guardian,” and a reframing of everything police do consistent with that goal.
“When I have those officers who, whether they call it touchy feely or whatever … they don’t necessarily agree with the philosophical underpinnings of our training here, when we actually sit down and talk about what we’re doing,” Hendrickson said, “without exception, every single officer has said, ‘Well, that’s what good cops have always done.'”
“And I’m like, exactly,” Hendrickson said. “What we’re trying to do is not have that be the exception … that’s what we want all cops to do.”
Hendrickson’s job in Washington state is unique for two reasons. First, law enforcement in America is decentralized and most states don’t require every police officer go through the same training. But more broadly, Hendrickson teaches a version of law enforcement at odds with the norms of police training regimens across the country.
His approach distances officers from the “warrior” mentality and instead tries to fold that into approaching the role of police as guardians. When he first became a police officer, the philosophy of policing was adopted in part from a military-like approach to use speed and overwhelming force to ensure compliance, he said.
“Knowing what we know now about human behavior and decisions, them going that fast impairs the ability to make good decisions,” he said. “Unfortunately, there are still a lot of trainers and training the idea of speed, surprise and violence of action, this model we took from the military, is going to intimidate people or force people to listen to what police are saying. This idea of going fast and overwhelming people with force isn’t working.”
The agency trains for 300 different police agencies in the state, so every department no matter its staffing gets consistent training and messaging. It’s funded by fines paid on some tickets and local governments pay a portion of the cost for each officer they send to the academy. Small departments also benefit from access to training that might be too expensive or not feasible otherwise.
“We get the best trainers we can, we can expend funds to do really sophisticated training,” said Rahr, the executive director of Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission.
Seeking a national model
Rahr acknowledged the difficulty of getting 300 police chiefs to buy into this model. But it’s been state law since the 1970s and even the chiefs who don’t buy into some training sessions recognize that what they’re training is efficient and makes sense, she said.
“I find myself frequently having to defend the kind of training we actually do. Blocks of training on emotional intelligence and procedural justice and dealing with mental health issues,” she said. “If you can imagine, clients are 300 chiefs and sheriffs, trying to get them to agree … they don’t. But fact is I think fundamentally on every level the model we use makes more sense.”
Across the country, police academies broadly and use of force training specifically are both matters of local control. Congress doesn’t have authority to set local police department policy concerning use of force, though the federal government could develop what it sees as “best practices.” Other non-governmental organizations, like the Police Executive Research Forum, have already put forward theirs and many agencies have adopted them.
“My dream, my, my moonshot, if you will, is that there would be a national project to build a national model for police academy training,” Rahr said. “And it’s very, very doable. That model could be replicated virtually in any police academy.”
Each state has a commission that sets training and standards for officers but only 11 states run a single academy for every officer. Other states may have dozens that each comply with their state standards in their own way, and some departments are so large they run their own academies.
“If you go to a state that has 15 or 20 different academies, which one says I’ll turn over my people to you? It’s really hard to get people to let go of control once they have it,” Rahr said.
Municipal budgets are stressed
Activists have called for shifting money away from police to fund services where they say mental health or medical specialists would be better suited first responders, such as 911 calls for overdoses or people in the midst of mental health episodes. Some cities are adopting co-responder models modeled after one in Eugene, Oregon.
Others have called for abolishing police departments or cutting funding to police departments. Both Biden and Garland are opposed to that. Garland told senators during his confirmation hearing that he would advocate for spending more money to improve law enforcement. Still, there’s nothing stopping cities and states from adjusting how much they spend on police.
“President Biden has said he does not support defunding the police and neither do I. We saw how difficult the lives of police officers were in the bodycam videos we saw when they were defending the Capitol. I do believe, and President Biden believes, in giving resources to police departments to help them reform and gain the trust in their communities,” Garland said in response to a question from Republican Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley.
Minneapolis’ city council and mayor approved a spending plan that cut police funding and expanded mental health services.
The social movement to defund or reform police comes as tax revenues to large cities have cratered because of Covid-19. There is less recreation, tourism, travel, dining, and other amenities to tax and local governments across the country are facing budget cuts.
In Los Angeles, the city’s police department reorganized to save $150 million under pressure from activist groups hoping to defund policing. That reorganization prioritized retaining the department’s patrol capabilities.
Separately, that department faced the threat of layoffs at the end of last year because of a fiscal crisis brought on by Covid-19’s effect on the city’s tax revenue.
The union representing officers agreed to forego two contractual raises to avoid layoffs for two years.
Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore said the cuts could undo some progress they’ve made professionalizing the police department.
In previous times of economic stress, the department would go a year or two without any hiring, he said. Then either conditions would improve or there’d be some push to hire and head count would surge in a way that “probably exceeded the applicant pool’s quality,” Moore said.
Years later, people picked up in hiring surges would be involved in some scandal and the ebb and flow in hiring and subsequent scandals “erodes trust and sets up the agency for failure,” he said.
“Nobody argues about reform, I think rational people recognize (police are) on an evolutionary path,” Moore said. “We’re always going to change … This is a matter of maintaining and causing public safety while you build those social programming systems so that demands on law enforcement and what’s asked is diminished.”
Shifting responsibility for mental health calls
Biden told civil rights leaders he wanted more funding for making mental health professionals available on 911 calls, and defunding advocates have called for shifting the responsibility of mental health calls away from police officers.
But without investment in other systems, police will still be the ones responding to 911 calls. And if there are fewer police who aren’t getting regular training and the administrative oversight parts of department are cut, the response will be poor.
“What you’re talking about is the crux of the defund debate,” said Lopez, the former deputy chief in the civil rights division at the US Department of Justice. “What I believe … is that you need to do it simultaneously with building up of alternatives (to policing) slightly ahead.”
Lopez said it would take time to set up new systems to take over work police have been doing for decades, and there are likely to be mistakes as communities work through a new way of doing things.
“You do have pockets where it’s being done across the country,” she said. “But to scale takes time.”
Garland testified to the US Senate that there’s a need to give departments the resources to better deal with mentally ill and suicidal people.
“So that police officers don’t have to do a job that they’re not trained for and that from what I understand they do not want to do. Those resources need to go to mental health professionals and other professionals in the community so that the police can do the job they’ve trained for and so that confrontations, if possible, do not lead to deaths and violence,” Garland said.
Moore noted that social services are often open during business hours but don’t have the same staffing or availability on nights and weekends as police and firefighters. That leaves police and paramedics responding to calls all hours of the night that could be handled by people other than police.
“Los Angeles needs 500 of those workers, working for an outside department that are non-law enforcement, we could send them 10,000 calls and they call us when they’re not needed and we could divest ourselves of (that),” Moore said. “You don’t defund police and downsize, close your eyes and imagine those resources will take these (calls). What happens is police still respond to those calls but with a smaller workforce, less of a response, less training, less accountability systems. You see policing deteriorate. You see bad outcomes. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Moore said the vast majority of the disputes police respond to are not resolved through any type of enforcement, but by officers counseling people having the dispute.
“And there’s others where they escalate and violence results and then we’re blamed for being there,” he said. “(People ask) why are you there to begin with and ignore that there’s no one else to go.”
‘We need a vision’
Despite the limits of federal government’s role in local law enforcement, Congress can give money to agencies or initiatives it supports, and the Department of Justice can help push police agencies toward reform either through civil rights investigations or by pushing state and local officials toward research supported best practices.
“We don’t need a laundry list,” said Wexler, the Police Executive Research Forum executive director. “We need a vision for a major investment in American policing. This can’t just be investigating 30 departments for pattern and practice. We need major investment in research, training, and innovation. We need to know what works.”
The Department of Justice has only sought one consent decree during President Donald Trump’s presidency, but it was used more than two dozen times during President Obama’s tenure. Still, there are 18,000 law enforcement agencies and the way to national reform isn’t through consent decrees, Wexler said.
Wexler said the Justice Department would likely use consent decrees as a tool for departments resisting change but he encouraged leaders to think bigger.
“People shouldn’t look at this as (any) one part is the answer to police reform,” Wexler said. “If you have a Justice Department working on all cylinders, that means both investigation where need be but also in providing resources, major investment in policing, in how do we change hiring and recruiting. That’s a role for the Justice Department that it’s historically played but it really needs investment.”
CNN’s Josh Campbell, Christina Carrega and Jeremy Herb contributed to this story.