How This Summer Changed—and Failed To Change—American Policing

Lawmakers introduced hundreds of policing bills in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. A few dozen passed.


In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in May, activists and criminal justice reform advocates suddenly had momentum and mainstream attention on previously niche issues like qualified immunity, no-knock warrants, and public access to police misconduct records. 

State lawmakers responded to these nationwide demands for reform by introducing hundreds of bills. But how much of that momentum translated into concrete changes in American policing?

A database created by the lobbying firm MultiState and shared with Reason shows that, of the 283 policing reform bills introduced since May that the firm has tracked, 35 have passed.

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), a nonpartisan association of sitting state legislators, maintains a wider database of policing bills introduced since the death of George Floyd. Of the 653 bills tracked by the NCSL, 57 have passed.

"We've seen so much activity on policing reform at the state level since the end of May," Chris Mattox, a senior policy analyst at MultiState, says, "even in a year when many states' legislative sessions were interrupted or cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic. Given what we've seen so far, I expect to see a lot more legislation coming out of the statehouses when they reconvene next year."

Those databases give a fairly comprehensive view of what happened in summer/early fall 2020, but not the whole picture.

This month, Virginia passed legislation banning no-knock raids, barring police from initiating searches during traffic stops if they allegedly smell marijuana, expanding civilian oversight of police departments, and making it easier to decertify officers found guilty of crimes or other misconduct.

As part of a larger reform package, Colorado eliminated qualified immunity for police, a disgraceful legal doctrine that frequently shields officers from liability in civil rights lawsuits.

California passed measures to ban chokeholds, require the state attorney general to investigate fatal police shootings of unarmed civilians, and increase oversight of county sheriffs. However, police unions managed to kill other proposals, such as one that would have given the state a way to decertify police officers. California currently has no power to permanently strip an officer's badge, allowing problem cops to bounce from department to department. 

The New York legislature repealed a law that made police misconduct records in the state totally secret, a stinging defeat for police unions that had successfully defended and expanded the law for four decades. 

Similarly, Hawaii passed a bill in July that will make suspensions and firings of police officers public record. The new law also allows the state's law enforcement standards board to revoke officer certifications. 

The Minnesota legislature passed a compromise bill that bans chokeholds and warrior-style training for police officers and creates a new office to investigate police killings and allegations of sexual assault committed by police.

New Mexico will now require every police officer in the state to wear a body camera.

However, civil liberties and criminal justice advocates didn't see many of their highest priorities pass, let alone make it into bills.

"Overwhelmingly, the legislation we saw introduced in the wake of George Floyd's murder was honestly pretty weak," says Paige Fernandez, policing policy adviser at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Fernandez says most of the bills that were introduced were "backstop bills" that focused on what happens after police violence has occurred, rather than stopping them from happening in the first place.

One of the more common provisions passed by state legislatures was restricting police from using chokeholds like the kind that killed George Floyd. Delaware, for instance, created a new crime, "aggravated strangulation," that applies to police officers. Utah and Iowa also restricted the use of chokeholds. The latter was one of the few bills introduced by a Republican. The vast majority of bills were introduced by Democrats.

The Department of Justice also announced this week that restricting chokeholds would be one of the certification requirements for police departments under a White House executive order issued in June.

The MultiState and NCSL databases do not include internal policy changes at police departments: The Omaha Police Department and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department announced changes to their use-of-force policies to limit neck restraints. The Memphis Police Department announced it would no longer execute no-knock search warrants. 

City councils were active as well. In San Francisco, police will no longer respond to calls involving non-criminal matters. Louisville, where Breonna Taylor was killed by police, banned the use of no-knock warrants. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms issued executive orders in June requiring police to use de-escalation tactics before using force, and requiring officers to intervene if they see another officer using excessive force. In Wisconsin, the Madison City Council voted to create a civilian review board and an independent auditor to oversee its police department.

Cities and school boards also wrestled with proposals to eliminate or shrink the presence of police in schools, which civil liberties groups have long argued contribute to the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. Several major cities—Minneapolis, Portland, Denver, Seattle, Oakland—eliminated school resource officer programs, while Chicago slashed its school police budget by more than half. 

But there was backlash as well. The Georgia legislature, for instance, passed a "peace officers bill of rights" that increased procedural protections for police officers. The legislation, opposed by civil liberties groups, seals records of unfounded complaints against officers and substantiated complaints that do not result in discipline. It also increases procedural protections for officers under investigation and creates a new crime for attacks against police or law enforcement property.

In September, Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced legislation to increase penalties for crimes associated with protests and to block state funding to cities that cut police department budgets.

"The concern that I have, and I think a lot of advocates in policing reform work have," Fernandez says, "is that in the 2021 legislative session, a lot of legislatures will try to absolve themselves of responsibility and say, 'Look, we passed this package in emergency session in the summer of 2020 following the murder, George Floyd, we did our part.' But they didn't, and they have a long way to go."