Can We Finally Address Policing?
Terry H. Schwadron
March 8, 2021
The U.S. House has spoken, passing, a sweeping police practices bill that would ban chokeholds, end many no-knock raids and make it easier to prosecute police caught up in unjustified shootings.
The measure also would mandate data collection on police encounters, prohibit racial and religious profiling and redirect funding to community-based policing programs.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act was named for the man who died in Minneapolis police custody for a routine stop with a knee kept on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
But, once again, the bill goes next to an unforgiving Senate and its 50–50 party split, making final passage iffy at best.
It was a police chokehold that killed Errol Garner in New York City, a no-knock raid to the wrong address that ended in the death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, and racial profiling that has led to any number of other deaths that followed police stops across the country of Black citizens in disproportionate numbers.
But with Republicans touting strong Law & Order and Back the Blue slogans, Senate Republicans tend not to want to be seen as aligning with those who criticize increasingly broad numbers of police misconduct cases.
When a similar bill passed the House last year, Senate Republicans pushed an alternative created by Sen. Tim Scott, R-SC, the lone Black Republican senator, which stopped short of addressing so-called qualified immunity for law enforcement to ease prosecution of claims of police misconduct. Basically, that is a defense concept sometimes built into various local laws, police union contracts or court precedents that shields officers from prosecution for acts on the job.
Sen. Rand Paul had more narrowly proposed a bill to end no-knock warrants.
Those bills died at the hands of Democrats, who said they did not go far enough to address more systemic police misconduct.
Let’s hope — and press — — for a better outcome this time.
Almost by coincidence, the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former police officer charged with killing Floyd, is scheduled to begin in Minneapolis today (though there are appeals of the charges). Chauvin, whom we watched on ever-repeating video loops as he knelt on Floyd’s neck, faces second-degree murder and manslaughter charges. Other officers will be tried separately this summer.
The political fate of the bill in the Senate aside, communities have been moving very cautiously about clipping the powers — and the money — for policing. The Defund the Police campaign, which started to funnel some policing funding into community services for mental health and social services, clearly proved to be a divisive, if intentionally distorted slogan during the presidential campaign last year.
Joe Biden has promised to convene interested parties around policing issues, though that has yet to come about. Still, though he is supporting the George Floyd policing bill, Republicans in the Senate seem disinclined to add solid support. Various remarks suggest the act as contributing to weakening community policing.
Donald Trump had signed an executive order asking for an independent commission to devise best policing practices, but there was little follow-up or response. What there has been are actions by individual police departments, cities and states, leaving a patchwork of allowable enforcement policies across the country.
In Harlem, my neighborhood in New York City, mental health specialists are going into the field with police officers to identify when they could address cases arising on the street as one in which providing social services may keep problems from escalating. Connecticut is among the states barring specific police techniques like chokeholds — which had been barred in New York even before the Errol Garner death — and bolstering training. The use of police-worn cameras is expanding Iowa barred the hiring of police officers previously fired for misconduct.
Almost all officials say they would like to see more uniform data, since the FBI collects local reports from about 40% of police agencies.
Still, police unions naturally see the issues in ways more protective to officers than in supporting widespread change in community-facing attitudes.
Meanwhile, we continue to hear reports of people of color stopped for routine matters — Walking While Black.
The one thing you can’t legislate, of course, is a more open attitude towards race.