States struggle with pushback after wave of policing reforms
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The national reckoning on race and policing that followed the death of George Floyd — with a Minneapolis police officer’s knee on his neck — spurred a torrent of state laws aimed at fixing the police.
More than two years later, that torrent has slowed.
Some of the initial reforms have been tweaked or even rolled back after police complained that the new policies were hindering their ability to catch criminals.
And while governors in all but five states signed police reform laws, many of those laws gave police more protections, as well. More than a dozen states only passed laws aimed at broadening police accountability; five states only passed new police protections.
States collectively approved nearly 300 police reform bills after Floyd’s killing in May 2020, according to an analysis by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland. The analysis used data from the National Conference of State Legislatures to identify legislation enacted since June 2020 that affects police oversight, training, use of force policies and mental health diversions, including crisis intervention and alternatives to arrests.
Many of the accountability laws touched on themes present in Floyd’s death, including the use of body cameras and requirements that police report excessive force by their colleagues. Among other things, police rights measures gave officers the power to sue civilians for violating their civil rights.
North Carolina, for example, passed a broad law that lets authorities charge civilians if their conduct allegedly interfered with an officer’s duty. But it also created a public database of officers who were fired or suspended for misconduct.
In Minnesota — where the reform movement was sparked by chilling video showing Floyd’s death at the knee of Officer Derek Chauvin — the state Legislature enacted several police accountability changes, but they fell well short of what Democrats and activists were seeking.
The state banned neck restraints like the one used on Floyd. It also imposed a duty to intervene on officers who see a colleague using excessive force, changed rules on the use of force and created a police misconduct database.
But during this year’s legislative session, Democrats were unable to overcome Republican opposition to further limits on “no-knock” warrants even after a Minneapolis SWAT team in February entered a downtown apartment while serving a search warrant and killed Amir Locke, a 22-year-old Black man.
In Minneapolis, voters defeated a 2021 “defund the police” ballot initiative that would have replaced the department with a reimagined public safety unit with less reliance on cops with guns.
Similar dynamics have played out in states as varied as Washington and Virginia, Nevada and Mississippi. And if the range of outcomes has varied as well, that comes as no surprise to Thomas Abt, a senior fellow with the Council on Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan think tank.
“We’re in the midst of this extraordinarily painful, very formidable process,” Abt said.
WASHINGTON: PROGRESSIVE REFORMS MET WITH BACKLASH
Days before the first anniversary of Floyd’s killing, Washington’s Democratic governor signed one of the most comprehensive police reform packages in the nation, including new laws banning the use of chokeholds and no-knock warrants.
Police had argued that some of the reforms went too far and would interfere with their ability to arrest criminals. The pushback didn’t stop after the new laws went into effect.
“There’s just that atmosphere of emboldened criminals and brazen criminality, and people telling law enforcement, ‘I know that you can’t do anything,’ ” said Steve Strachan, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.
Before the reforms, officers were generally allowed to use the amount of force necessary to arrest a suspect who fled or resisted.
Police had historically been allowed to use force to briefly detain someone if they had reasonable suspicion that the person may be involved in a crime. Under the new law, police could only use force if they had probable cause to make an arrest, to prevent an escape or to protect against an imminent threat of injury.
Police said the higher standard tied their hands and allowed suspected criminals to simply walk away when police stopped them during temporary investigative detentions.
Earlier this year, lawmakers rolled back some provisions, making it clear that police can use force, if necessary, to detain someone who is fleeing a temporary investigative detention. Police must still use “reasonable care,” including de-escalation techniques, and cannot use force when the people being detained are being compliant.
Some are pushing for additional rollbacks. In a video released last month, a group of sheriffs, police chiefs and elected officials urged people to call their legislators to ask them to lift some new restrictions on police pursuits. Some suspects are ignoring commands to pull over, they said, knowing police cannot chase them.
Current law prohibits police from engaging in a pursuit unless there is probable cause to believe someone in the vehicle has committed a violent offense or sex offense, or there is reasonable suspicion that someone is driving under the influence.
Carlos Hunter, a 43-year-old Black man, was fatally shot by police in 2019. His sister, Nickeia, said it was disheartening to see some of the laws amended after years of reform efforts.
“Any good the reforms that were in place did, they are going to try to undo in 2023,” she said. “They are trying to roll back every gain that was made.”
NEVADA: REFORMS BLUNTED BY LACK OF FUNDING
On paper, the police reforms passed in Nevada in 2021 appeared expansive.
The public would get a statewide use-of-force database with information on deadly police encounters. Law enforcement agencies were mandated to develop an early-warning system to flag problematic officers. And officers had to de-escalate situations “whenever possible or appropriate” and only use an “objectively reasonable” amount of force.
A year later, a lack of funding and a failure to follow through have blunted the impact of the reforms.
The database doesn’t exist yet. The early-warning system wasn’t clearly defined, so some police departments said they’ve made no changes. And many law enforcement agencies already had de-escalation language in their use-of-force policies.
While the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, the state’s largest, had enacted reforms before the new laws, little has changed in the daily operations of smaller police forces.
Sheriff Gerald Antinoro of Storey County, an area outside of Reno with an Old West mining past, said his department regularly updated its use-of-force policy and had its own “fail safes” to identify troubled officers.
“If you want my opinion, mostly it was feel-good legislation that somewhere along the lines, somebody thought they were making a huge difference,” Antinoro said. “It’s fluff and mirrors.”
Others are even more blunt.
The reforms are “a waste of time” said Bill Ferguson, undersheriff for rural Mineral County.
“I think it’s a way for a politician to say they made a change,” Ferguson said. “It really hasn’t changed the way we’ve been operating.”
For this story, reporters at the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at Arizona State University contacted the largest police departments in Nevada, as well as the sheriff’s offices for each of the state’s 16 counties. Of the eight agencies that responded, a few said they made small changes, like tweaking their use-of-force policies to align with the new law.
Nevadans’ pro-police “Blue Lives Matter” sentiment and intense lobbying by prosecutors and police unions made it harder to pass reforms in Nevada than elsewhere, said Frank Rudy Cooper, director of the Program on Race, Gender & Policing at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
The pared-down reforms still face obstacles.
The Nevada Department of Public Safety waited more than a year before it received funding in August to begin collecting use-of-force data from all law enforcement agencies in the state. An estimate prepared by the software developer projected that costs associated with the data gathering would top $85,000. Details will include type of force and whether the civilian had a mental health condition or was under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Other aspects of Nevada’s police reforms lack clear enforcement mechanisms. No one, for example, oversees setting standards for how departments identify problematic officers.
“We were able to get ourselves out of that one,” said Mike Sherlock, executive director of the Nevada Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, the state’s regulatory agency for law enforcement. Sherlock said the commission worried about the labor needed to keep track of officers and a lack of specifics about what defines problematic behavior.
Meanwhile, no state agency is charged with tracking whether departments have updated their use-of-force policies.
The Legislature’s leading reformer, state Sen. Dallas Harris, said she had to scale back the bills to get them passed. Ultimately, she said, it’s up to the public and the police departments themselves to make sure change happens.
“I’m in the Legislature,” Harris said. “There’s only so far our reach extends.”
MISSISSIPPI: LITTLE APPETITE FOR POLICE REFORM
In Mississippi, where 38% of the population is Black, there is little political appetite for police reform — and Republican state Sen. Joey Fillingane is clear when he explains why.
“The general feeling among my constituents in south Mississippi is we need to support police and thank them for the job they’re doing because crime is on the rise and they are standing between us and the criminal element,” he said.
But there are some who see a need for action.
Jarvis Dortch, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, was a member of the Mississippi House of Representatives when Floyd was killed. He watched as states around the country enacted a wide assortment of police reforms while no police accountability measures were approved in Mississippi.
“It’s disappointing,” Dortch said.
It is more than disappointing to Black people like Darius Harris who say their encounters with police are fraught because of racism.
For years, Harris would go into Lexington, Mississippi, four or five times a week, to visit his brother or go grocery shopping. These days, Harris said he goes 20 miles out of his way to buy food rather than set foot in the small city in the Mississippi Delta.
The reason, according to Harris, is that he is regularly targeted and threatened by Lexington police.
“It’s not worth the risk of being harassed,” said Harris, a 45-year-old construction worker.
Harris is one of five plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit that accuses the Lexington Police Department of subjecting Black residents to intimidation, excessive force and false arrests.
Harris and his brother, Robert, were arrested on New Year’s Eve in 2021 as they shot off fireworks at Robert Harris’ house. The brothers were arrested again in April and charged with “retaliation against an officer” after they spoke out against the police department at a meeting, according to the lawsuit.
Lexington’s population of 1,600 is about 80% Black. The lawsuit alleges that Lexington is “deeply segregated” and controlled by a small group of white leaders. Also named as a defendant is former Police Chief Sam Dobbins, who was fired in July after he was heard on an audio recording using racial slurs and saying he had killed 13 people in the line of duty.
Attorneys for Dobbins acknowledge in court documents that the former chief was recorded “saying things he should not have said,” but argue that he did not violate the constitutional rights of the Harris brothers and the other plaintiffs.
The new police chief, Charles Henderson, is Black. He denied any racial bias on the part of his officers.
“Our police, we’re not prejudiced,” he said. “We definitely don’t stand behind any kind of racial profiling.”
VIRGINIA: SHIFTING MENTAL HEALTH CALLS AWAY FROM POLICE
Virginia, once a reliably conservative state, flexed its then-new Democratic muscle after Floyd’s death, passing a sweeping package of police reforms. Among them: legislation banning the use of chokeholds and no-knock search warrants.
A key part of the reform package was a bill to set up a new statewide framework giving mental health clinicians a prominent role in responding to people in crisis — rather than relying on police. The law was named after Marcus-David Peters, an unarmed Black man who was fatally shot by a Richmond police officer in 2018 during a psychiatric crisis.
Advocates hoped the new law would minimize police participation in emotionally charged situations that they may not be adequately trained to handle and can end with disastrous results.
Five pilot programs began last year in various regions of the state, but some supporters of the law were disappointed when an amendment approved by the Legislature earlier this year gave localities with populations of 40,000 and under the ability to opt out of the system.
Peters’ sister, Princess Blanding, said the law she envisioned has been “watered down to the point that overall it is ineffective.”
The law allows each region to decide how to respond to mental health crises. “This lack of consistency is very dangerous and it could be the difference between life and death,” Blanding said.
Before the program began, police would be dispatched to respond to mental health emergency calls to 911. After the new system launched in December, lower-risk calls began to be connected to the regional crisis call center but high-risk calls continued to be dispatched to police.
Now, where the system is active, “community care teams” made up of police and mental health professionals (also known as co-response teams) are dispatched by 911 under certain circumstances, when available.
Under the new system, mental health calls are assigned levels of urgency:
–Those that do not require police investigation and are connected to the regional crisis call centers — part of the 988 National Suicide & Crisis Lifeline — for support and mental health referrals.
–Calls in which the risk is assessed as urgent and a community care team is deployed.
–High-risk situations, when police and other first responders are dispatched.
On a recent weekday, dispatchers at the Richmond Department of Emergency Communications Center received a call from a woman who said there was a schizophrenic homeless man screaming on her front porch. A co-response team made up of a police officer and a mental health clinician responded. The man told them he was trying to get out of the rain and didn’t mean any harm.
Another caller said someone told her to check herself into a mental ward. The dispatcher asked her if she was hurting anyone, including herself. “Nothing happened, but I’m going through a psychosis,” she said. The dispatcher transferred her to the 988 center.
The legislation allowing small communities to opt out was introduced by Republican lawmakers who said those localities worry they cannot afford to set up a new response system and to hire additional mental health workers. The General Assembly allocated $600,000 for each regional behavioral health authority in the state to implement the program, but some small communities say that is not enough.
Nine out of the 10 counties covered by the Middle Peninsula Northern Neck Community Services Board — a sprawling area, roughly the size of the state of Delaware, along the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay — have decided to opt out, said Executive Director Linda Hodges.
“When this law was developed, they did not take these small rural communities into consideration,” Hodges said.
In the capital Richmond, John Lindstrom, chief executive officer of the Richmond Behavioral Health Authority, said he is encouraged by the early results of the co-response teams.
Between Aug. 15 and Sept. 30, when the first of two co-response teams was activated, there were 69 calls. None resulted in arrests, the use of force or injuries. Nine people were taken into custody for involuntary hospitalization, and 87% were given referrals to community mental health providers.
“We’re not going to fix every bad outcome,” Lindstrom said, “but we want to further reduce them, to increase resources so people can have more confidence that if you call 911 or call 988 you’re going to get help, you’re not going to get hurt.”
This story corrects the name of Mineral County Undersheriff Bill Ferguson. A previous version had his name as Brian Ferguson.
Lavoie reported from Richmond, Virginia; Monnay reported from College Park, Maryland; Rihl reported from Las Vegas. Rachel Konieczny in Phoenix and Steve Karnowski in Minneapolis also contributed reporting.
This story was supported by Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights in conjunction with Arnold Ventures.
This story is a collaboration among The Associated Press and the Howard Centers for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism and at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The Howard Centers are an initiative of the Scripps Howard Fund in honor of the late news industry executive and pioneer Roy W. Howard.
Contact Arizona State’s Howard Center at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @HowardCenterASU. Contact Maryland’s Howard Center on Twitter @HowardCenterUMD.
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