May 26

By Brianna Navarre

On Memorial Day two years ago, George Floyd was murdered by a white police officer in Minneapolis. Videos of the encounter spread like wildfire on social media, sparking outrage, protests in the streets of major U.S. and international cities, and calls for a reckoning on policing in America.

Though a majority of Americans still support some forms of police reform, such as banning the use of chokeholds (58%) and prohibiting the deactivation of body cameras (64%), the furor of summer 2020 seems to have abated. In fact, support for police reforms across the board has decreased in the last year, according to a May 2022 national UMass Amherst Poll conducted by YouGov.

Despite the evolving public opinions, state lawmakers have been taking action. According to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures, 2022 alone has seen the introduction of more than 1,000 pieces of legislation tied to policing across 47 states, addressing everything from use-of-force standards to policing alternatives.

Last month saw the signing of Utah’s sweeping police reform bills into law: One requires officers to report misconduct and another limits no-knock warrants, which some attribute to the 2020 death of Breonna Taylor. On the other side of the country, Virginia has eliminated the state’s arrest quotas, which “contribute to unjust policing and exacerbate racial disparities,” Ashna Khanna, the policy director for the ACLU of Virginia, told one media outlet.

Other states have taken a more collaborative approach to reform. Georgia has implemented a co-responder act, which gives departments the option to enlist behavioral health specialists in 911 calls relating to mental health crises, echoing similar projects in places like New York City.

However, many of these legislative attempts at police reform have faced pushback or stalling, particularly in red states, where bills concerning topics such as law enforcement restraints and requirements for officer-involved death investigations have failed.

For example, Mississippi’s latest legislation to require more policing transparency around officer-involved deaths died in the state’s House judiciary committee. Similarly, in March, a transparency bill in Florida that would have mandated the wearing of body cameras and use of dash cameras by law enforcement officers failed in the state’s Senate.

“There’s a natural cycle in movements that when there is a big rush of momentum, there’s naturally pushback and backlash to that. And I think that we’re seeing some of that right now,” says Hilary Rau, vice president of policy and community engagement at the Center for Policing Equity.

In January, after a bill proposing police reform stalled in Congress, President Biden pledged to issue an executive order that would tackle the issue.

Ram Subramanian, of the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute, says that reform is “not likely” to occur on the federal level due to “the political makeup of Congress.” However, he adds that there is “definitely movement on the ground.”

Rau agrees, stating that much of the heavy lifting is occurring within smaller communities.

“We’re still seeing change happening and being pushed forward on the local level, even when it’s maybe occupying less of national headlines than it was in late 2020,” she says.

For example, localities around the country are passing legislation to address traffic stops, which have disproportionately harmed Black Americans. Philadelphia’s Driving Equality Law, which bans traffic stops for low-level violations, such as an expired registration, went into effect this March. The first of its kind in the country, lawmakers hope that it will put an end to mixed-motive stops, that is stops unrelated to any traffic code violation and used instead to conduct searches.

While legislation may be unable to comprehensively address the deep-seated issues that concern advocates, Rau believes that it’s an important piece of the puzzle to address equitable public safety.

She says legislative reform can “set groundwork to empower local communities to make the change by requiring basic data collection that gives people the information they need in a standard that’s useful…removing barriers to community power.”