States Race to Pass Policing Reforms 08/08 10:03
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- The death of George Floyd and widespread protests over
racial injustice have prompted several states to move at a lightning pace to
pass significant policing reform proposals that in some cases have languished
The urgency is bipartisan, as both Democratic and Republican majorities in
various legislatures have moved quickly to pass bills banning chokeholds,
making it easier to hold officers legally accountable for their actions and
other reforms. GOP-controlled Iowa took about a week to pass a series of
policing bills in mid-June. A week later, the Colorado Legislature, where
Democrats hold the majority, passed a sweeping police accountability bill that
sped through the legislative process with bipartisan support.
Minnesota passed a broad slate of police accountability measures that
include a ban on neck restraints like the one used on George Floyd before his
death in Minneapolis. The state is one of only two in the country where
partisan control of the legislature is split.
"This kind of rapid response from legislators, on this type of issue
particularly, is not something I've ever seen previously," Amber Widgery, a
program principal on criminal justice issues at the National Conference of
Since Floyd's death in late May, there have been about 450 pieces of
policing reform proposals introduced in 31 states, according to a count by the
NCSL. Many states had finished their normal legislative session at the time of
Floyd's death and are planning to address police accountability next year. But
some states are having special sessions this year and others moved quickly to
pass bills during the normal legislative calendar.
"The national protests that followed George Floyd's killing have shown that
the nation is demanding stronger police accountability," said California state
Sen. Steven Bradford.
California's legislature is in the final month of a session repeatedly
interrupted by the pandemic and lawmakers are pushing to enact nearly a dozen
police-related laws. One would require law enforcement officers to immediately
intercede and report what they believe to be the use of excessive force.
Another would allow criminal suspects to apply for victims' compensation if
they were injured by police use of excessive force.
Another state expected to take action soon is Virginia, where a new
Democratic majority disappointed some criminal justice reform advocates earlier
this year with a go-slow approach. Now lawmakers are set to debate a wide range
of policing and other reforms in a special session starting later this month.
One proposal that has drawn pushback would downgrade the charge of assault on a
police officer from a felony to a misdemeanor in cases where the officer is not
State Del. Lamont Bagby, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, said it's
unfortunate that Floyd's death was necessary to create a sense of urgency for
"But we won't pass up the opportunity," he said.
Pennsylvania lawmakers quickly approved two police oversight bills in June,
legislation that included measures Black lawmakers and their mostly Democratic
allies had tried to pass for years in the Republican-controlled General
Law enforcement's reaction to the state-level push has been mixed, with
police groups supporting some measures and opposing others. In Colorado, a new
law that eliminated the qualified immunity defense that generally protects
government workers from lawsuits was strongly opposed by some police. Officials
say a handful of veteran officers in the state have since resigned, saying the
financial risk isn't worth it.
The protests have not moved every state toward putting new limits on police
powers. If anything, protests in Missouri have only fueled backlash and
pro-police sentiment, primarily among Republican elected officials.
With the state legislature in a special session, Republican Gov. Mike
Parson, a former sheriff who is campaigning to keep his seat in November,
directed lawmakers to focus on an uptick in violence in the state's largest
cities. He dismissed bipartisan calls from Black legislators and activists for
the legislature to address police accountability issues, saying those issues
need to be debated next year.
In Oregon, where the most populous city, Portland, has experienced some of
the country's fiercest clashes between law enforcement and protesters,
lawmakers will return for a second special session starting next week to
address the state's budget.
During a special session in June the Legislature passed several police
reform bills, including a measure that limits the use of chokeholds and another
creating a statewide police discipline database.
Now some are pushing for the Legislature, which Democrats control by large
majorities, to be more aggressive and use the second special session for even
more police-related action. Measures the Oregon Legislature might consider
include a total ban on the use of tear gas, requirements that officers' display
their last names and badge numbers, and a prohibition against chokeholds under
all circumstances. Not all legislative leaders are onboard.
"COVID-19 upended our economy and put state services at risk," said Senate
President Peter Courtney, a Democrat from Salem. "We have another long session
coming in January. Now is the time for the budget."
Virginia state Sen. Scott Surovell, who is helping spearhead the criminal
justice efforts in that state, said there is a sense of urgency to get as much
done as possible during the special session and not put off items until next
year's normal legislative session. He said he is worried the final stretch of
the presidential election and its outcome could make it harder to maintain the
focus on reforms.
"That's just going to take over the narrative," Surovell said.
But Daniel Feldman, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice
in New York, said he thinks Floyd's death has sparked a sustainable movement
that created a tipping point, much like the gay rights movement did previously.
"It does seem to me that this is one of those changes in public opinion that
has staying power," he said.