Floyd legislation reveals divide in police-reform movement

·6-min read

NEW YORK (AP) — Monifa Bandele became a community organizer in the late 1990s, after New York City police fatally shot a young, unarmed Black immigrant named Amadou Diallo in the Bronx.

In the two decades since, she repeatedly witnessed police reforms that failed to stop Black people from dying at the hands of officers. Some of those reforms are now part of federal legislation being negotiated in the name of George Floyd, the Black man whose murder under the knee of a white Minneapolis officer last year sparked worldwide protests.

For instance, the legislation calls for banning chokeholds, a step already taken by New York City prior to the 2014 death of Eric Garner, who in an encounter with the NYPD uttered the same last words as Floyd: “I can’t breathe.”

As the anniversary of Floyd’s death approaches, some reform supporters say the best way to honor him would be for Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. But many activists warn that some of the proposed reforms have not been enough to stop past police abuses, reflecting a divide within the movement over what would constitute real progress.

“What we’ve come to realize over the past decades is that police departments, with their oversized budgets and their outsized political power, are able to rise above reformist policies,” said Bandele, an organizer with the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of over 150 Black-led advocacy organizations that opposes the Floyd legislation because it does not hit hard enough at systemic racism.

The bill also includes prohibitions on no-knock police raids like the one in Louisville, Kentucky, that killed Breonna Taylor, a young Black front-line worker. It would create a national registry for officers who are disciplined for serious misconduct, among other proposals.

Although Bandele thinks the bill is well-meaning, now is not the time to settle for the same old ideas, she said.

“Our duty is that we have to make a bigger demand,” she said.

In Congress, hopes of passing a package by the May 25 anniversary have faded as negotiations between the House and Senate grind on. But top negotiator Rep. Karen Bass, a California Democrat, said she remains hopeful of an eventual compromise.

The House approved the sweeping police overhaul earlier this year, but it faces stiff resistance from Republicans in the closely divided Senate. Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina has a more modest alternative, and the parties have been engaged in long, private negotiations over a potential compromise.

“It is more important that we get it right, and that we have a substantive bill, versus do something ceremonial because of the date,” Bass told reporters Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

One key debate has been whether to allow individual police officers to be sued over their actions, changing the so-called qualified immunity protections for law enforcement. Republicans largely object to that approach and prefer to hold the officers’ employers responsible.

One top Democrat, Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the highest-ranking Black lawmaker in Congress, has suggested he would be open to a compromise, and Bass said she agreed with his broader point that it’s not worth walking away from a deal if Democrats cannot include every priority.

“I also agree that the day that President Biden signs this bill, the next day, we keep working,” Bass said. “Because this bill, I think, will be significant. But in no way, shape or form do I think it’s going to be enough.”

Police have killed roughly 1,000 people in the U.S. each year since 2015, and a disproportionate number of the victims have been Black. Studies of criminal justice data show Black Americans are far more likely than white Americans to be pulled over by police and are as much as three times more likely to be searched.

Black men were about 2.5 times more likely than white men to be killed by police between 2013 and 2018, according to a 2019 study published by the National Academy of Sciences. Black women were 1.4 more times likely than white women to be killed by police, according to the same study.

A new poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows most Americans think big changes are necessary to reform the criminal justice system. Overall, 25% think it needs a complete overhaul, while another 43% think it needs major changes. Twenty-seven percent think it needs minor changes, while just 4% think no changes are needed.

The poll finds a majority of Americans support specific reforms such as requiring officers to wear body cameras, establishing clear standards for use of force, mandating that officers report misconduct, penalizing officers who engage in racially biased policing and requiring that law enforcement agencies have independent review boards.

A majority — 58% — say they also oppose reducing funding for law enforcement agencies.

The level of support for reform varies along racial and party lines. The poll shows majorities of Black, white, Hispanic and Asian Americans think major changes or an overhaul are needed, though Black Americans are especially likely to call for the most drastic changes, with 48% saying a complete overhaul is needed and another 36% saying the justice system needs major changes.

By comparison, among white Americans, 20% think the system needs a complete overhaul, 44% think it needs major changes and 32% think it needs minor changes, with 3% saying no changes are needed.

Close to 9 in 10 Democrats think the justice system needs either major changes or a complete overhaul. Republicans are more likely to say only modest reform is necessary, with 13% saying an overhaul is needed and 32% wanting major changes, but 47% saying only minor changes are needed and 7% saying none are.

Jim Burch, president of the nonpartisan National Police Foundation, which supports the advancement and reform of policing through science and innovation, said he is encouraged by the focus on policing reforms at the federal level.

The legislation named after Floyd “offers many worthy proposals, as well as some requiring further analysis and clarity in order to make a positive impact in the manner intended,” Burch said in an email.

Last July, the Movement for Black Lives sought support in Congress for its BREATHE Act, which would, among other proposals, eliminate the Drug Enforcement Administration and ban the use of surveillance technology on communities that activists say are over-policed.

“It’s not that we want less safety. We are often criticized when we say defund (the police) or when we promote the BREATHE Act. We actually want more safety than the police can deliver,” Bandele said.

Selwyn Jones, an uncle of George Floyd on his mother's side of the family, told the AP that he was disappointed that Congress would not pass the Floyd legislation next week.

“We don't live in a perfect world,” he said Friday. “We, as Black people, have been fighting a battle for 400 years."

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Swanson reported from Washington. Associated Press Writer Lisa Mascaro in Washington also contributed to this report.

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The AP-NORC poll of 1,842 adults was conducted April 29-May 3 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.

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Morrison is a member of the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/aaronlmorrison.

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