Protests Prompt Policing Changes, But Skeptics Doubt They Will Be Enough

By: - June 30, 2020 12:00 am

Colorado Rep. Leslie Herod, a Democrat, gestures during a protest outside the State Capitol. State lawmakers reckon with protestors in every state calling for changes to policing in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. David Zalubowski/The Associated Press

The first day protesters gathered outside Colorado’s State Capitol last month to call for policing changes, state Rep. Leslie Herod stood with them.

“I could hear the anger and feel the frustration, and I felt it too,” she said. “As an elected official, I realized it was time to act.”

Herod, who chairs the Black Democratic Legislative Caucus, began putting together legislation to require body cameras for officers, set up a database of fired officers and prohibit use of chemical irritants during protests. The House and Senate quickly passed it and Democratic Gov. Jared Polis signed it.

Only 21 days had passed since that first protest, which occurred three days after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, a Black man, by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

The urgency of the public protests, paired with legislative sessions interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, put policing changes on a fast track in Colorado and elsewhere, said Amber Widgery, a policy analyst with the criminal justice program of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“It’s an unprecedented response from legislatures,” Widgery said. “We’ve seen a lot of action. We’ve seen a lot of quick action.”

Still, some advocates say the legislation only scratches the surface of deeply embedded policing problems and is part of a pattern of quick fixes that haven’t solved systemic issues.

States also passed dozens of laws regulating police use of force, mandating training for crisis interactions and requiring body cameras after the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

“One of the reasons why there’s so much anger now is because there were efforts. People thought things were getting better and they weren’t,” said Jeremiah Goulka, director of justice policy at Northeastern University’s Health in Justice Action Lab, which advocates for criminal justice changes.

Since Floyd’s death on Memorial Day, at least three states in addition to Colorado have enacted policing-related legislation and at least 12 more and Washington, D.C., are considering it, according to a Stateline review.

In New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a series of bills June 12 to, among other things, repeal a law that shielded police disciplinary records from public scrutiny, create a unit in the attorney general’s office to investigate police misconduct and ban chokeholds.

In Utah, Republican Gov. Gary Herbert signed a bill to ban chokeholds and knee-on-the-neck restraints.

And in Iowa, a bill to ban most chokeholds and address officer misconduct won unanimous support from the legislature and Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds.

But it hasn’t been smooth sailing everywhere.

Legislative efforts fell short in Minnesota, where the Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-controlled House could not come to an agreement on policing measures. 

Nearly half of the state legislatures have ended their sessions or don’t have sessions in even-numbered years, setting up 2021 to be a busy year of policing-related legislation, said Widgery.

‘We Welcome Reform’

Colorado lawmakers were supposed to finish their work in early May. The pandemic changed that, interrupting the session in mid-March and pushing it to restart May 26, the day after Floyd’s death.

Herod, the lawmaker who led the effort to pass the policing bill, said she tried to bring up other policing legislation earlier in the session but leaders told her it was too divisive amid COVID-19.

Then came Floyd’s death.

“If it weren’t for the protesters, the bill would not have been introduced,” she said. “I can’t say how much protest does actually lead to policy change and action.”

Getting the final product took some bipartisan work.

When Republican state Sen. John Cooke first read the bill, he was horrified, he said.

“I called it a revenge bill,” said Cooke, who worked in law enforcement for 30 years.

He and the Democratic sponsors spent hours negotiating changes, the most important being softening a ban on qualified immunity, which shields police from being held personally liable for constitutional violations. After revisions, the new law allows an officer to be liable for a limited amount and only if an officer was not acting in “good faith.”

“Through negotiations, through working together, finally we got it to a place that all but two Republicans could support it in the Senate,” said Cooke, who ultimately voted for the bill.

The Colorado Fraternal Order of Police largely supports the new law, with some reservations about how it will be implemented.

“We welcome reform. We believe it’s long overdue in our profession overall,” said Sgt. Rob Pride, who, as the state’s national trustee, is the liaison to the national Fraternal Order of Police.

Pride has worked for law enforcement agencies in Colorado for 27 years. He said he never was taught to use chokeholds, and was shocked that agencies still allowed them. Body cameras and data collection, he said, will benefit police and prove that there is not a sweeping problem with law enforcement.

“I firmly believe that 99.9% of our officers are good people wanting to do the job for the right reasons and treat everybody the same and protect everybody the same,” Pride said. “If there is a pattern of bad practices it will identify them. We can attack that problem.”

But Pride fears the legislation was rushed, leaving some issues that will need to be worked out with lawyers or taken up by the legislature again. He said the language on when force can be used is too ambiguous. And even though the bill’s initial ban on qualified immunity was softened, Pride said he’s heard some officers are considering retiring early or working in a different state because of it.

Divided Legislature

In the state where Floyd died, attempts to pass policing-related legislation failed. 

While Minnesota lawmakers agreed on banning chokeholds and requiring officers to intervene if they see misconduct by a fellow officer, negotiations broke down on other elements. Minnesota is one of two states (Alaska is the other) where Democrats control one legislative chamber and Republicans control the other.

To Democrats, the Republican proposal consisted of “fluffy language,” said Rep. Rena Moran, who chairs the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus. GOP Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka did not return a request for comment.

Moran said she left the capital June 20 exhausted from days of trying to come to a compromise.

“This is really important work. Not only are Minnesotans from across our state looking to us to do some work in this area,” she said, “but the world is watching.”

Moran anticipates another chance soon: Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, plans to call the legislature back into session to renew his emergency powers, and he could ask the lawmakers to address policing again.

In some states, police departments have changed policy without waiting for the legislature. In particular, more police departments and training academies are preparing to adopt duty-to-intervene training to gain public trust and prevent future unnecessary police killings.

In Chattanooga, Tennessee, Chief David Roddy updated the 500-officer department’s policy to clarify that officers have a duty to intervene if a fellow officer is doing something harmful, illegal or improper.

Around the same time, lawmakers took up policing-related bills in the Senate and House that included a duty-to-intervene mandate, but the parties couldn’t come to an agreement so the measures were put on hold.

Roddy, who has been with the department for 25 years and chief for the past three, said he’s always expected officers to intervene and wanted a clear policy. “It’s not only a statement from the department to your officers about what the expectations are for their behavior,” Roddy said. “Policy is also a reflection of the community it serves. It faces inward and outward.”

Familiar Cycle

For some advocates, the recent efforts are reminiscent of what they perceive as limited actions taken after the events in Ferguson in 2014. They are skeptical that this time will be different.

In response to Ferguson, the Obama administration commissioned a task force to recommend policing changes. From 2014 to 2017, at least 16 states enacted legislation regulating use of force by law enforcement, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. At least 27 states passed laws that required police training for situations involving an individual with a mental illness. And 34 states passed laws related to body cameras.

But Northeastern University’s Goulka said any legislation that singles out police tactics is likely to fall short. 

“Simply banning chokeholds, I see as just a means of trying to calm the public as opposed to fundamentally revamping use of force policies and training and culture,” he said.

For example, Goulka said, changes shouldn’t stop with policing but address issues in the wider criminal justice system, such as the opioid crisis, high rates of plea deals and the relationship between crime and poverty.

“I wish that things would go much bigger than they are,” he said. “Some legislators want to take the easiest path out of this — to check the box and move on.”

Kumar Rao, director of justice transformation at the left-leaning Center for Popular Democracy, also said that efforts to alter single elements, such as eliminating chokeholds, are insufficient. Instead, he supports broader changes to the role and budget of policing.

“I think people are sort of catching up to that idea and acknowledging that we need to do things very differently,” Rao said.

But each fix through legislation is important, said Lynda Garcia, policing campaign director at the Leadership Conference on Human and Civil Rights, a coalition that mostly works on federal civil rights legislation.

“You can look to state legislatures. Many times you can get stuff done at that level,” Garcia said. “It’s certainly one of the most important pressure points for thinking about transformative change.”

In Colorado, members of the Denver chapter of the national Black Lives Matter organization have been advocating for changes to policing policy since forming a few years ago. Apryl Alexander, whose background is in clinical and forensic psychology, joined the efforts three years ago.

“We’ve had our own incidents of police violence,” Alexander said of Colorado. Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man, was killed in police custody last year in Aurora. Polis this week assigned the state attorney general to the case.

“When people say it happened quickly with the passing of this bill, we’ve been talking about all of the issues with the bill in the past few years,” Alexander said, attributing the success to pressure on lawmakers from protesting constituents and media attention.

But, Alexander added, “Even when these rules are in place there will have to be a culture shift and change in policing.”

The work in Colorado, she said, is a start.

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Lindsey Van Ness
Lindsey Van Ness

Lindsey Van Ness is an assistant production editor and staff writer for Stateline. Previously Lindsey reported on public safety issues at LNP and LancasterOnline in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.