State Capitols Reckon With Racism in Policing
A demonstrator holds a Black Lives Matter flag in front of the California state Capitol in Sacramento. The massive protests from this summer inspired a wave of racial equity legislation. Rich Pedroncelli/The Associated Press
This is part two of Stateline’s 2021 State of the States series.
Racial equity is on the docket in state capitols this year.
It’s been eight months since Minneapolis police killed George Floyd. Millions marched to declare Black lives matter and demand changes to police accountability, tactics and biases.
This anti-racist movement, built over decades, has seeped into state capitols nationwide and promises to bring significant changes to housing, health care access and policing policy in the first full legislative session since that pivotal summer.
“It’s the right time. It’s way past the right time,” said Washington state Sen. Manka Dhingra, a Democrat. She introduced three police accountability bills this session, including one that would require officers to intervene if they see wrongdoing by peers.
On policing alone, lawmakers in at least 16 states have introduced more than 330 bills for this session, in both red and blue states, according to a database compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).
Some bills include proposed bans on police tactics such as no-knock warrants or chokeholds. Other measures would require de-escalation training for officers and add new means of disciplining cops accused of misconduct. Additional bills aim to increase accountability and transparency by creating community advisory boards and collecting data on stops, searches and arrests.
But many lawmakers want to go beyond policing.
Some have introduced bills that would eliminate racist and archaic laws that deny equal access to housing, while others want to remove holidays and statues that honor the Confederacy.
Several governors in the past year have declared racism a public health emergency and established commissions to study institutional racism in state agencies.
There is a clear sense of momentum among state lawmakers focused on racial equity and policing this year. Many of them say the timing and the politics are right for change. And some law enforcement experts have a strong piece of advice to legislatures: Think big.
“My biggest fear is that states are going to be under-ambitious, that they are going to adopt pinprick measures and think that they achieved reform,” said Barry Friedman, founding director of New York University School of Law’s Policing Project, which works with police and communities to bolster accountability.
The debate over policing should not ebb and flow with every tragedy, he said. It should be a broader, continuing conversation in state legislatures.
While members of law enforcement have worked with lawmakers in some states to ensure their concerns and needs are represented in these new measures, some police unions have come out strongly against bills they say make officers and the public less safe. Many police unions have opposed measures that would expose their officers to lawsuits or take away tools they say are effective in maintaining public safety.
Dennis Slocumb, international political director and vice president emeritus of the International Union of Police Associations, worries that what he called “broad-brush” measures in the states could put officers and the public at risk. He is particularly concerned with bills that would take away military equipment, ban nonlethal weapons and remove certain immunities for officers in civil lawsuits.
“We understand there are positive, good changes that could be made to improve law enforcement and their relationship with the community,” he said, “but if our voices aren’t heard there are going to be negative impacts on the quality of life in cities.”
These powerful voices in law enforcement can make legislative negotiations difficult, said Christy Lopez, who led the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division’s investigation and consent decree negotiations with the Ferguson, Missouri, Police Department after the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown.
“There is less of an appetite for dramatic reform at the state level than the rhetoric would indicate,” said Lopez, who now co-leads Georgetown Law’s Innovative Policing Program. “The forces in favor of the status quo are very powerful.”
The protests inspired by Brown’s death seven years ago had a pivotal impact on state legislation.
Federal courts and local jurisdictions have historically regulated policing. But when Black Lives Matter protests pushed for changes to policing and demanded better treatment of people of color, lawmakers in many states responded. They soon introduced a wave of bills to regulate law enforcement, including some that required and funded body cameras for officers.
As more police shootings of civilians, often of unarmed Black men, gained national attention, states saw a steady trickle of legislation. But then came last spring, when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck as three other officers watched, suffocating him to death. Millions took to the streets around the globe, from the United States to Australia to Zimbabwe, demanding accountability for police shootings and systemic racism.
“It really kicked off an absolutely unprecedented amount of state action,” said Amber Widgery, NCSL’s Criminal Justice Program principal. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a volume of bills reach that peak volume before, nor have I seen that sort of concentrated effort on one topic.”
A “tremendous” number of bills gained traction, she said. Less than a month after Floyd’s death, several states already had passed sweeping legislation.
In Colorado, lawmakers in June adopted a measure that limits when officers can use deadly force, especially against people suspected of nonviolent or minor offenses. Iowa, too, passed a measure that limits the use of chokeholds and prevents officers fired for misconduct from being rehired within the state.
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, signed a large police accountability package in December that, in part, creates a majority-civilian police accountability board and bans the use of rubber bullets, chemical irritants and police dogs on crowds.
Other states did less. Lawmakers in Arkansas and Louisiana set up commissions to study police accountability.
Still, just last year, 26 states passed 82 bills around policing, according to the NCSL database. If it weren’t for the pandemic, which forced many lawmakers into emergency sessions to pass relief packages, legislatures likely would not have been in session after Floyd’s death and would not have moved on these policing measures, Widgery said.
Many of these measures weren’t new, she said, but had been shelved in previous sessions.
Calls for Accountability
The police killing of Breonna Taylor in her home last March in Louisville, Kentucky, and the overwhelming show of force from law enforcement in reaction to Black Lives Matter protests was “a shock to the system” for state Rep. Lisa Willner.
After seeing armored vehicles roll down city streets and officers beat protesters, the Louisville Democrat saw a need for change.
She introduced three bills this session: One, in part, would ban the use of kettling—a tactic where officers corral demonstrators into a confined space—and would limit the use of rubber bullets. Other measures would protect peaceful protesters from being prosecuted under riot laws, while another would protect the rights of civilians to film police activity. Willner thinks she’ll have bipartisan support.
“It’s really sad that we need legislation to protect peaceful protesters,” she said.
Next to COVID-19 and economic relief, policing and racial justice bills are a top priority for Democratic leaders this year in the Washington state legislature, said state Rep. Roger Goodman, who chairs the House Public Safety Committee, where many of the bills are being debated.
To develop new legislation, lawmakers leaned on existing relationships within the law enforcement, civil rights and criminal justice communities, maintained since the sides worked together to amend the state’s police use-of-force law in 2019.
The broad package of policing bills that emerged include measures that would limit the use of neck restraints and military equipment, and high-speed chases. Others would add an audit process for police use-of-force incidents and require data collection for arrests and stops. Lawmakers also want to create community accountability boards that give residents subpoena powers.
“We want to make sure that this police reform package isn’t just an emotionally based reaction to troublesome events,” Goodman said.
The measures face skepticism from some lawmakers.
Republican state Rep. Brad Klippert, who has served as a county law enforcement officer for the past 27 years, said he is happy to work with his Democratic colleagues, but wants to ensure the legislature doesn’t pass measures that could get in the way of policing. He has expressed concerns about measures that ban certain policing tactics, like neck restraints.
“Our task in law enforcement is protecting public safety,” said Klippert, a deputy sheriff in Benton County. “And if you take away all of our tools we use, we can no longer keep the public safe.”
After Illinois lawmakers passed broad police accountability legislation earlier this month, local police unions said measures made the state “less safe” by limiting their ability to pursue suspects and make arrests. Police unions successfully opposed legislation in other Democratic-held legislatures, such as California, saying the measures went too far.
Some Republican lawmakers have responded to massive Black Lives Matter protests with laws that target riots and other demonstrations.
Florida Republicans, with the backing of GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis, have introduced legislation that would limit protests, add penalties for defacing public monuments and expand the state’s stand-your-ground legislation, which allows residents to use deadly force to defend themselves without first having the obligation to retreat.
A new Republican-backed stand-your-ground bill is also moving through the Arkansas legislature.
Other Republicans have been on board for some changes to policing in other states.
In Indiana, GOP state Rep. Greg Steuerwald introduced a fast-moving bill that would require de-escalation training, limit the use of chokeholds and add new procedures to decertify officers accused of misconduct. The bill, which was introduced in early January, has support from the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus and included input from the Indiana Sheriffs’ Association. It passed out of committee and is moving through the legislature.
“I got everyone to the table,” Steuerwald said. “I don’t call it reform. I call it enhancement.”
The Black community is “crying out” for many of these changes to policing, said Georgia state Rep. Sandra Scott, a Democrat. She authored seven police-related bills this session, including ones that would require de-escalation training and body cameras, ban military equipment and racial profiling by police, and hold liable officers who violate the law or commit misconduct.
Black people in Georgia, Scott said, have been living with the threat of police violence and an unequal judicial system. She wants to change that.
“This legislation comes from the people,” she said. “It’s not about whether we like police officers or don’t like them. It’s about doing the right thing.”
Another bipartisan bill in Georgia seeks to repeal the state’s citizen’s arrest law and remove stand-your-ground provisions. Two White men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man out for a jog last February, are using both statutes to defend themselves in court.
Beyond policing, state legislatures also are exploring issues around racial equity and structural racism in health care, housing and criminal justice.
Over the past year, Colorado, Michigan, Nevada and Ohio declared racism a public health crisis, joining more than 170 jurisdictions around the country that have made similar declarations, according to the American Public Health Association. Lawmakers in Arizona, California, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York will consider bills that would add their states to that list.
Legislators in Oregon will consider a bill this session that seeks to root out institutional racism in the state health care system by funding grants for organizations that build coalitions within communities that seek to make health care more accessible. The bill would also require the state to work with community groups that work on health equity.
New York Democrats, meanwhile, plan to craft legislation that would dismantle systemic racism in housing. That measure might include rental assistance. Lawmakers last month passed an eviction moratorium until May, which Democrats say is especially critical in a pandemic.
States also are looking at racism in their existing laws. Last year, Virginia repealed hundreds of laws written with racist language. Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, also removed statues of Confederate leaders from the Virginia Capitol.
Northam is among several leaders across the country who declared Juneteenth—a day that celebrates the end of slavery—a state holiday. Other state leaders want to join that effort, including in Illinois, where Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, announced his support. Meanwhile, Democratic leaders in Texas this year will fight to remove a state holiday that celebrates Confederate leaders.
In California, some lawmakers also want to increase transparency in and remove racial biases from jury selection and sentencing.
Maryland Senate Pro Tempore Melony Griffith, a Democrat, has made it her priority to work on legislation that focuses on systemic racism and the root causes of health and economic disparities this session.
She and other Democratic leaders, in a report released earlier this month, outlined 47 recommendations around wealth, the environment and health. The recommendations cover issues ranging from elevated levels of lead in drinking water to maternal and child health care to promoting more minority-owned businesses. Maryland has made some progress in recent years, she said, but now she wants to be bold.
“It’s time for us to dig deeper and be more deliberate,” Griffith said. “That’s how systemic change happens. It’s not big, flashy and sexy. It’s meaningful and impactful.”
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