Lesson of the Day: ‘As New Police Reform Laws Sweep Across the U.S., Some Ask: Are They Enough?’ - Digital Promise Verizon Innovative Learning Schools

Lesson of the Day: ‘As New Police Reform Laws Sweep Across the U.S., Some Ask: Are They Enough?’

A protest last week after the death of Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man who was killed by the police in Brooklyn Center, Minn. (Victor J. Blue for The New York Times)

April 21, 2021 | By Jeremy Engle

Lesson Overview

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

Last year, the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Daniel Prude and other Black people by law enforcement sparked possibly the largest protest movement in American history and a national reconsideration of racism and policing. In recent weeks, the deaths of Daunte Wright and 13-year-old Adam Toledo have ignited fresh protests and more questions about why police interventions escalate into deaths of people of color. Then, on Tuesday, Derek Chauvin was found guilty of the murder of George Floyd — a verdict, The New York Times reports, that represents a rare rebuke of police violence. But what happens now?

States have passed over 140 police oversight bills since Mr. Floyd was killed, increasing accountability and overhauling rules on the use of force. But the calls for change continue.

In this lesson, you will first be invited to react to the verdict in the Chauvin trial and reflect on what it means for the future of policing. Then you’ll examine the police reforms spreading across the country — and consider whether they go too far or not far enough. Finally, we invite you to join the debate and to help reimagine public safety in this country.


Did you participate in any of the protests that swept the country in the weeks and months that followed George Floyd’s death? Did you follow the trial? What is your reaction to the verdict?

Do you believe that this is a historical moment and a turning point for America — “a giant step forward in the march toward justice,” as President Biden described it? Or do you think that this is just one case, and that a larger struggle for racial justice and against police brutality still lies ahead?

Questions for Writing and Discussion

Read the featured article below, then answer the following questions:

1. Select two police reforms discussed in the article (for example, “mandating and funding body cameras” or “limiting officer immunity”). What problems in law enforcement does each reform address? What changes does each hope to achieve?

2. Why are the new state laws and rules adopted by police departments across the country not enough to “satisfy demands by Black Lives Matter and other activists,” according to the article? What recent events have “underscored how the new laws would not always prevent traumatic outcomes”? What kinds of changes and cultural shifts are activists looking for — and what is your opinion of these changes?

3. How have police organizations, such as the Fraternal Order of Police, responded to the push for reforms? Why do some police advocates point to statistics showing increases in violent crimes as evidence that early reforms are backfiring? How persuasive do you find these arguments?

4. The article reports that the Baltimore state’s attorney, Marilyn Mosby, has decided to stop prosecuting minor crimes like prostitution and drug possession. What do you think she means when she says, “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”?

5. What is your reaction to this article and to the police reforms being enacted across the country? What impact do you think these reforms will have? Are they enough to tackle racial bias and excessive use of force in law enforcement? Or are deeper, more radical changes needed? What questions do you still have about policing in America?

Going Further

What do you think should be done about American policing?

What changes, if any, are needed for more effective and just policing and public safety? What should be done to confront racial bias in policing? How can we end the disproportionate use of excessive force against Black Americans? Do we need more reforms like restrictions on neck restraints or on so-called no-knock warrants, or do we need deeper, more fundamental change — such as “defunding” the police?

In the Times article “What Is to Be Done About American Policing?,” published last July, Spencer Bokat-Lindell presented three paths to policing being debated in the streets, in the press, in academe and in Congress at the time. Here are some excerpts:

Abolish the police

The idea of eliminating policing as we know it is foreign to most Americans, but it is not new. A concept with roots in the midcentury civil rights and prison abolition movements, it has certainly become more mainstream in recent years: In 2017, Tracey L. Meares, a professor at Yale Law School who served on the Obama administration’s President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, wrote that “policing as we know it must be abolished before it can be transformed.”

The rationale for abolition traces back to the genesis of American policing. As Mariame Kaba, an activist and organizer, explains in a Times Op-Ed, policing evolved in the South in the 1700s and 1800s from slave patrols, white vigilantes who enforced slavery laws by capturing and “returning” black people who had escaped enslavement. In the North, policing emerged as a way to control an unruly “underclass,” which included African-Americans, Native Americans, immigrants and the poor, in service of the rich. “Everywhere,” she writes, “they have suppressed marginalized populations to protect the status quo.”

Commissions to examine police brutality have been convened since 1894, but none of them has solved the problem Ms. Kaba views as inherent to the institution’s design. The only way to do so, she argues, “is to reduce contact between the public and the police.”

Defund the police

Abolition is closely related to the demand to defund the police. If abolition is the goal, defunding is a method — but a method that people who oppose getting rid of all policing can also get behind. As a more technocratic call, it doesn’t necessarily entail eliminating budgets for public safety, as Christy E. Lopez, a professor at Georgetown Law School, explains in The Washington Post. Rather, it means “shrinking the scope of police responsibilities and shifting most of what government does to keep us safe to entities that are better equipped to meet that need.”

Even some police officers agree that Americans rely too heavily on law enforcement “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country,” the former Dallas Police Chief David Brown said in 2016. He elaborated: “Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it. … Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem; let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, let’s give it to the cops. … Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”

Reform the police

Most Americans oppose calls to defund the police. In a letter to The Times, Stephen Crawford, a research professor at George Washington University, points out that when the Baltimore police stepped back after the uproar over Freddie Gray’s death in 2015, crime rose and Baltimore’s homicide rate became the highest in the nation.

“It is naïve to think that abolishing the police will radically reduce robbery, rape and murder, even if all the saved money is reallocated to better housing, schools, jobs and social services,” Mr. Crawford writes. “Fixing these broader problems will take far more resources.” But he also calls it equally naïve to think that the problem with policing is just a few bad apples. “Real reforms are possible, and it’s important to seize this rare opportunity to achieve them.”

What do you think? Does policing in America need to be reformed, defunded or abolished? What changes, big or small, do you think we need nationally and locally?

Whatever your conclusion, raise your voice. Here are some ways to do that:

■ Compose a letter to your City Council, your school superintendent or your mayor proposing changes to policing where you live.

■ Write an editorial to be published in your school or local newspaper. For a shorter option, write a letter to the editor.

■ Imagine you were to design a new society: What do you want policing to look like? What role would the police and jails play, if any, in ensuring the safety and well-being for all citizens in your new society? Be creative and bold: How might you reimagine public safety in a way that addresses our current problems and eliminates them as much as possible? If you are doing this as part of a class, you might work as a team, and each team might create a visual explanation of how their new society would work. Then each team might exhibit its work in a classroom gallery. What commonalities can you find? What differences? Which ideas do you think are most likely to work in the society we live in today? Why?


As Police Reform Laws Sweep Across the U.S., Some Ask: Are They Enough?
By Steve Eder, Michael H. Keller and Blacki Migliozzi
April 18, 2021
The New York Times

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 in 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.”

More than 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 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 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 Joe 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 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 Floyd’s death. The law banned chokeholds, required officers to intervene if they witnessed 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 ACLU 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, Kentucky, 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, 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,” Mosby told the Baltimore City Council last week.

Other proposals to reduce police interventions have caught on elsewhere. In February, Berkeley, California, barred officers from pulling over motorists for not wearing a seat belt, misuse of high-beam headlights or 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.”

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 proposed cuts to 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, which were enacted because of a budget deficit, were reversed after a spike in murders and attacks on Asian Americans.

“I understand the conversation about defunding and re-imagining the police, but these are real people dying,” said Sgt. Barry Donelan, the head of the Oakland police union.

The city has had more than 40 homicides so far this year compared with 13 at the same time last year.

Immediately after 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 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 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.

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 FBI data released last month, although 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.”

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