As New Police Reform Laws Sweep Across the U.S., Some Ask: Are They Enough?

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In February, Illinois enacted a law that rewrote many of the state’s rules of policing, and mandated that officers wear body cameras. In March, New York City moved to make it easier for citizens to sue officers. This month, the Maryland legislature — which decades ago became the first to adopt a Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights — became the first to do away with it.

In recent months, state and city lawmakers across the country have seized on a push for reform prompted by outrage at the killing of George Floyd last May, passing legislation that has stripped the police of some hard-fought protections won over the past half-century.

“Police unions in the United States are pretty much playing defense at the moment,” said Brian Marvel, a San Diego officer and the president of California’s largest law enforcement labor organization. “You have groups of people that are looking for change — and some groups are looking for radical change.”

Over 30 states have passed more than 140 new police oversight and reform laws, according to a New York Times analysis of data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Amber Widgery, a policy expert at the organization, said many of the laws — restricting the use of force, overhauling disciplinary systems, installing more civilian oversight and requiring transparency around misconduct cases — give states far more influence over policing practices that have typically been left to local jurisdictions.

“We’re seeing the creation of really strong, centralized state guidance that sets a baseline for police accountability, behavior and standards” for all departments, she said.

It’s a remarkable, nationwide and in some places bipartisan movement that flies directly counter to years of deference to the police and their powerful unions. But the laws, and new rules adopted by police departments across the country, are not enough to satisfy demands by Black Lives Matter and other activists who are pushing for wholesale reforms, cultural shifts and cutbacks at law enforcement agencies.

“The focus has been so heavily on what do we do after harm has already been committed — after the police have already engaged in misconduct — and far less focused on how do we stop this from the beginning,” said Paige Fernandez, an advocate at the American Civil Liberties Union.

While Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis officer accused of murdering Mr. Floyd, was on trial last week, episodes in Virginia, Minnesota and Illinois — which have all enacted reforms — underscored how the new laws would not always prevent traumatic outcomes.

A police officer in Virginia was seen on video pointing a gun at a Black Army lieutenant and pepper-spraying him during a traffic stop. A veteran officer in Minnesota fatally shot 20-year-old Daunte Wright, a Black man, after pulling him over. And video recordings showed a Chicago officer chasing and fatally firing at 13-year-old Adam Toledo, a Latino, after he appeared to toss aside a gun while obeying commands to raise his hands. The events ignited fresh protests and more questions about why police interventions escalated into deaths of people of color.

“People aren’t necessarily happy with the change they’re seeing, because the same thing keeps happening,” said Stevante Clark, whose brother Stephon was killed by the Sacramento police in 2018. California enacted a law named after his brother that raised the standard for using lethal force, but Mr. Clark sees a need for the federal government to impose national regulations.

House Democrats recently passed a sweeping police bill designed to address racial discrimination and excessive use of force, but it lacks the Republican support needed in the Senate. President Biden has also fallen short on a campaign promise to establish an oversight commission during his first 100 days in office.

Nearly 1,000 people have been shot and killed by the police annually in recent years, according to data from The Washington Post, which also shows that officers fatally shot Black and Hispanic people at a much higher rate by population than whites.

Some activists have cheered new laws that could curb police misconduct, mainly in states and cities controlled by Democrats. But they also fear that those changes could be offset in Republican jurisdictions that are proposing to expand police protections or impose harsher penalties for protest-related activities like blocking highways and defacing public property.

Police unions, along with many Republican lawmakers, have resisted some of the reform efforts, arguing that they will imperil public safety. But there have been some signs of bipartisanship.

In Colorado, Republicans joined with Democrats, who control the statehouse, to pass a sweeping bill less than a month after Mr. Floyd’s death. The law banned chokeholds, required officers to intervene if they witness excessive force and mandated body cameras statewide within three years, among other provisions. The Colorado legislature became the first to eliminate immunity from civil rights accusations, allowing officers to face claims in state court.

John Cooke, a Republican state senator and former Colorado county sheriff, worked with Democrats to revise their proposals. Officials, he said, realized that “we need to do something and we need to do it now.”

Republican-led states including Iowa and Utah have implemented changes, too, banning or restricting chokeholds, among other measures. But Iowa’s Republican-controlled House recently passed a “Back the Blue” bill that Black lawmakers said could unfairly affect peaceful protesters and amounted to “retaliation” against Democrats.

In Maryland, the Democratic-controlled legislature overrode a veto by the state’s Republican governor to pass a sweeping reform package. Outlining his objections, Gov. Larry Hogan said the laws would be damaging to “police recruitment and retention, posing significant risks to public safety.”

Importantly, the package erases the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights in the state, a landmark achievement for police unions in the 1970s. Decades ago, similar protections spread across the country in union contracts and local laws, but its passage in Maryland gave broad protections to every department at once.

Critics said the policing bill of rights reduced accountability: Officers could wait days before being questioned about an allegation; only fellow officers could conduct interrogations; some complaints could be expunged from an officer’s file after a few years.

“It is fitting that Maryland is the first state to repeal it as they opened this Pandora’s box in the first place,” said Caylin Young, public policy director at the A.C.L.U. of Maryland.

Maryland’s new laws contain a range of provisions to rein in policing: a body-camera requirement for officers regularly interacting with the public, prison sentences of up to 10 years for violations of the state’s use-of-force policy, and restrictions on so-called no-knock warrants. (Those warrants drew national attention last year when the police in Louisville, Ky., fatally shot Breonna Taylor, an unarmed emergency medical technician, after smashing through her apartment door during a botched drug raid. Louisville banned the warrants last summer, and state lawmakers limited their use this month).

Another Maryland law, named after Anton Black, requires disclosure of information about police misconduct investigations. The 19-year-old died in 2018 after officers pinned him to the ground following a struggle. (Prosecutors did not pursue charges, but his family has sued in federal court.) La Toya Holley, Mr. Black’s sister, said that the new laws would help but that a broader shift in policing was needed.

“That culture — that mentality — has to do a complete 180 if we want to enact change,” she said. “And it has to start in-house with the police departments, the captains, the chiefs and also the boards that are actually certifying these officers.”

Maryland’s new standards follow a decision by the Baltimore state’s attorney, Marilyn Mosby, to stop prosecuting minor crimes like prostitution and drug possession. “When we criminalize these minor offenses that have nothing to do with public safety, we expose people to needless interaction with law enforcement that, for Black people in this country, can often lead to a death sentence,” Ms. Mosby told the Baltimore City Council last week.

Other proposals to reduce police interventions have caught on elsewhere. In February, Berkeley, Calif., barred officers from pulling over motorists for not wearing a seatbelt, misuse of high-beam headlights and expired registrations. The moves were in part based on research showing that Black motorists in the city were about six times more likely to be pulled over than white motorists were, although the police union raised concerns that the reforms created “significant safety consequences for citizens and officers.”

In Virginia, a law went into effect last month limiting the minor traffic violations for which officers should stop vehicles. It also prohibits officers from conducting searches solely based on smelling marijuana.

“As a Black woman who understands there’s been a disproportionate abuse of Black and brown people by police officers, we had to do something to prevent these injuries and killings of people of color,” said L. Louise Lucas, a Democratic state senator from Virginia, who proposed the bill and spoke of her own mistreatment by law enforcement. “This is an age-old story for Black people,” she added.

Many of the new rules adopted by states and cities have similarities, focusing on the use of force or accountability after the fact. Two of the country’s largest states, California and New York, have been at the forefront of that push — and some cities have taken more dramatic steps.

Los Angeles, Oakland and San Francisco, for example, last year cut their police department budgets. Activists have called for reducing police funding and diverting some of that money to mental health initiatives and social services. But those demands have often met with resistance, not only from law enforcement but also from Black residents and officials who fear that crime would surge.

In fact, in Oakland, some of those cuts were reversed after a spike in murders and attacks on Asian-Americans.

“I understand the conversation about defunding and reimagining the police, but these are real people dying,” said Sgt. Barry Donelan, the head of the Oakland police union. The city has had over 40 homicides so far this year compared with 13 at the same time last year.

Immediately after Mr. Floyd’s death, the Minneapolis City Council voted to disband its police force, only to be overruled by a city charter commission.

Last year, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York ordered nearly 500 local jurisdictions, including New York City, to devise plans to “reinvent and modernize” policing in their communities, threatening to withhold funding if they failed to do so.

The governor has spoken of the need to “resolve the tension” between police and communities. “You don’t have the option of ending the police, and you don’t have the option of continuing with distrust of the police,” he said on Wednesday to reporters. “So the relationship has to be repaired.”

DeRay Mckesson, an activist and podcast host who helped found Campaign Zero, an initiative to end police violence, said that he saw progress on state and local legislation, especially around the use of force, but that there was plenty of unfinished business around accountability and how the police operate. “These issues will have to be things that we work on every year until we finish,” he said.

Mr. Mckesson, whose organization tracks legislative activity and works with local leaders on policy, said that unions had maintained their robust lobbying presence but that key lawmakers had become less deferential to them in places like Maryland.

“They were like, ‘We know what’s right and we won’t be swayed by the police just saying it’s going to cause fear,’” he said.

The police remain eager to be heard. “Most of our members across the country are finding that you have state legislatures that are including law enforcement in on the discussion,” said Patrick Yoes, the national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents hundreds of thousands of officers. “Then you have those that are pretty much freezing them out and have already made up their mind about the direction they’re going — because they believe that this reform somehow is going to save the day.”

Police advocates point to statistics showing increases in violent crimes as evidence that early reforms are backfiring. Nationally, murder rates increased significantly last year, according to preliminary F.B.I. data released last month, though experts have cited a number of possible factors that could be at work, including the pandemic. Excluding law enforcement from the discussions is leading to bad policy, the advocates say.

“They’ve been largely shut out of this conversation, which I don’t think is a good thing because they have experience and knowledge,” said Rafael A. Mangual, a senior fellow at the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute. “And I think part of that is just a reflection of the moment that we’re in.”

For Carmen Best, who recently retired as police chief in Seattle, cultural changes in policing will come with clear standards and consequences for misconduct. “People will think twice because they know there are repercussions,” she said.

To get there, she said, there needs to be frank discussion about why “horrific things” sometimes happen to minorities when they interact with the police, including Adam Toledo, whose killing by a Chicago police officer is under investigation.

“At the end of the day, we all watched a 13-year-old die,” she said. “That’s hard on everybody.”

Reporting was contributed by Luis Ferré-Sadurní, Thomas Fuller, Jesus Jiménez, Christina Morales and Katie Rogers.

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