This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system.
Eighteen days after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, the Minnesota state Legislature introduced 48 bills in a special session on law enforcement. On the same day, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a new bill restricting police chokeholds, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a series of police reforms into law, including repealing an obscure law, section 50-a, that shielded police disciplinary records from public scrutiny.
More lawmakers across the country are proposing changes to how police operate. In the three weeks after Floyd’s death and the ensuing nationwide protests against police brutality, 16 state legislatures have discussed the issues roiling the country. As of Tuesday, legislatures had introduced, amended or passed 159 bills and resolutions related to policing, including bills that were introduced in both chambers, according to a database compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures, a nonpartisan association of state lawmakers.
Of course, in politics, talking about doing something is one thing. Doing it is another. By June 16, nine of these bills have become law, and seven more are waiting for governors’ signatures. In all, three state legislatures — Colorado, Iowa and New York — have passed policing bills.
Looking at action in the statehouse has its limits, because police reform usually happens on the local level, as cities and towns decide how to fund and regulate their own police forces. The sheer number of new bills can also be misleading: some state legislatures will eventually bundle multiple bills related to the same topic and pass them as one omnibus bill.
Still, state legislatures can hold tremendous power on issues like setting pensions for police officers, and the wave of new state-level bills represents how swiftly the conversation around policing has shifted since the death of Floyd.
An analysis of the conference’s database shows that the majority of the reform bills introduced since Floyd’s death focus on police oversight and regulating use of force, like banning chokeholds, building public databases of traffic stops and establishing an independent agency to investigate misconduct.
Jamaal Bailey, a New York state senator who represents parts of the Bronx and Westchester County, said it’s been a humbling experience to represent constituents who are taking their anger and frustration with police brutality to the streets. Since Floyd’s death, three policing bills Bailey sponsored — repealing 50-a, establishing a special unit in the attorney general’s office to investigate police misconduct and requiring officers to pay attention to the medical and mental health needs of people in their custody — were signed into law.
“People have spoken,” Bailey said. “Folks have been complaining about police brutality for so many years, and it just goes away. It couldn’t go away this time. Not only are we going to take the street, but we are also going to push for changes in the legislature.”
Patrick Lynch, president of the Police Benevolent Association of New York City, was not pleased with the action in the statehouse.
“Governor Cuomo and our legislative leaders have no business celebrating today,” Lynch said in a statement when the reforms were signed into law. “New York state had been failing our communities for decades … Police officers spend our days addressing issues caused by these failures. Now, we won’t even be able to do that.”
Currently, more than half of the state legislatures are out of session, many because of the impact of COVID-19. Amber Widgery, who leads the criminal justice program at the NCSL, said she expects more police reform bills from state legislatures when they reconvene. Some governors, like Kate Brown of Oregon, have already announced they will call legislatures back into session to address police accountability.
Widgery said the speed at which some of the reform bills are making their way through the chambers is particularly noteworthy. Iowa’s police reform bill passed through the state’s Republican-controlled legislature with unanimous support in just one day, and the governor signed it the next. It gives the state attorney general power to prosecute police officers, bans chokeholds and restricts police departments from hiring officers with records of misconduct.
Iowa state Rep. Ras Smith, one of the main architects of the new reforms, said it took less than two weeks to craft the legislation.
“We don’t get to pick the moment in which we have allies who can unite and that we can get something done,” Smith said. “This was one of those opportunities in which we could really gain ground by finding the commonality and really addressing something that went beyond politics. But also that also means that we have to be mindful of knowing that they may not feel that way tomorrow. It’s still yet to be seen — this is the first step, the verdict is still out.”
Some states have not passed legislation, and there are a variety of roadblocks facing legislators. On June 3, Kansas state Rep. Rui Xu proposed a resolution condemning police brutality, racism and use of excessive and militarized force, but it died quickly the next day, when the legislature adjourned its special session.
Xu said he never truly expected to get his criminal justice bill passed in the state’s Republican-led House and Senate.
“I just wanted to show, at the very least, the people of color in Kansas there are legislative people in power who wanted to do something about this. A resolution doesn’t have the force of law, but we do have ideas,” Xu said.
Daniel Feldman, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said he is cautiously optimistic that the rush of legislation suggests change will continue to come, even after the daily protests ebb.
“The unjustified killing of Black citizens has little by little changed people’s wrong assumptions about interactions with the police,” Feldman said. “We may see the reactions to George Floyd’s death as instant, but the psychological shift has happened over a period of time. It may be a permanent shift in opinion.”
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