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June 9, 2020; Washington Post, Newsweek, and the Bay State Banner

Congressional Black Caucus chair Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), as reported by Newsweek, made it very clear: For a long time, we have known that too many police departments have a racism problem, and as a nation, we have done little to confront it. Fueled by the energy of the ongoing protests taking place across the country, she hopes this may be the time things finally change for the better.

What we are witnessing is the birth of a new movement in our country with thousands coming together in every state marching to demand a change that ends police brutality, holds police officers accountable, and calls for transparency. For over 100 years, Black communities in America have sadly been marching against police abuse and calling for the police to protect and serve them as they do others.

At a national level, the House of Representatives’ Democratic leadership has put forward a comprehensive set of proposals designed to better police the behavior of the police. If passed, they would enact at a national level many of the ideas criminal justice reformers have been recommending for years, including bans on chokeholds and no-knock warrants, which were central to two recent incidents that brought people into the streets. It would also “limit the amount of military-grade equipment given to local authorities by the federal government, require the use of body and dashboard cameras, establish more stringent training practices, create a nationwide police misconduct database, eliminate qualified immunity for officers, and make lynching a federal crime.”

Some or all of these specifics are included in bills already passed or still being considered at the state and local level. According to Yawu Miller, writing for the Bay State Banner, the Massachusetts legislature has before them “measures sought by Caucus members…requiring local police departments to report data on the race of people stopped by officers, a bill that would require professional certification and de-certification processes for police and a bill that would require independent investigators for allegations of police misconduct.”

In Boston, Councilor Andrea Campbell outlined her priority reforms, which included a similar list of new controls on police activity, “including full implementation of body cameras, a civilian review board, transparency in the department’s database of stops and searches, and clear protocols for use of force by police officers.”

A growing number of voices among protesters and criminal justice experts who see reform as a failed strategy are calling for funding to move away from policing to focus on building safer communities differently. Recently, a majority of Minneapolis’s City Council joined in this chorus. As City Council President Lisa Bender said at a press conference, “Our efforts at incremental reform have failed, period. Our commitment is to do what is necessary to keep every single member of our community safe and to tell the truth: that the Minneapolis police are not doing that. Our commitment is to end policing as we know it and to recreate systems of public safety that actually keep us safe.”

The murder of George Floyd may have finally made police violence and racism not solely a problem for Black people to solve. But passing these reforms and forcing police departments to finally change is anything but certain. Many of these same proposals have been sitting dormant with legislative bodies unwilling to enact them, and police and their unions have stood against change and higher levels of control and accountability. Collective bargaining combined with targeted political donations have let police unions, as described by the Washington Post, “win contracts, legislation and court decisions that shielded their members from oversight and discipline.” Qualified immunity keeps them safe from civil litigation for their actions: “Some provisions limited the window to file a complaint and blocked public access to personnel files, preventing the reporting or investigation, let alone disciplining, of abuse.” What’s more, their political clout aligns with the those who want to defend the social status quo and dismiss the very idea of racism to stymie reform efforts. As Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently tweeted:

The test of this moment of unrest and protest will be if substantial, systemic change takes place. The Banner noted that in 2015, proposals were put before the Boston City Council. “White councilors praised the police for doing a ‘phenomenal job’ with community policing and questioned the need for body cameras.” And reform was stalled.

The bill before the House of Representatives is a Democratic bill. The Republican-led Senate has appointed a committee to draft a legislative proposal, but it will be extremely limited in scope. Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), who is leading this effort, said, according to the Atlantic, that it would “lessen the potential for chokeholds and other dangerous forms of police restraints.”

But Scott was clear his GOP colleagues aren’t fans of the major items in the Democratic legislation, which includes bans on chokeholds and no-knock warrants in drug-related cases. He also ruled out reform of the legal doctrine for police known as qualified immunity—a key provision in the bill Democrats unveiled Monday.

If the energy behind significant and deep reform is washed out in the nation’s deep political chasm, we risk further division. Boston City Councilor Julia Mejia told the Banner, “I grew up in Boston. I survived the busing era. I don’t know whether I’ve ever seen so much distrust in our government.” We cannot afford a replay of our history; we must turn a new page and finally make our system what we say it is—fair and equitable—and that means going beyond symptoms to the revisit the question of what makes communities “safe” for all.—Martin Levine