After countless protests, debates and a conviction of the white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, who killed George Floyd, the police reform legislation created named after the Black man still died after congressional lawmakers failed to reach a deal on Sept. 22.
“Our politicians and members of the government put the carrot out in front of the people and have them reaching for a prize that they don’t intend on giving to them,” said Sean Ellis, reacting to the failed police reform bill.
Ellis knows firsthand the flaws in the criminal justice system after spending 22 years in prison for a crime police could not prove he committed. He was arrested in 1993 and later charged and convicted for killing a Boston police officer, but questions surrounded the handling of his case due to alleged corruption by investigators. His conviction was overturned in 2015, clearing the way for his exoneration.
As the George Floyd tragedy became known and the protests followed, Ellis was pleased to see the energy behind police reform but questioned the sustainability of the movement. Last year’s loud calls from progressives for defunding the police clashed with a backdrop of cities across the country experiencing an uptick in crime.
After the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act passed the House in March, it met political headwinds in the U.S Senate, where it ran up against Republican opposition to measures that could tangibly increase police accountability.
The legislation called for lowering the criminal intent standard to convict a law enforcement officer, limiting qualified immunity as a defense to liability in a private civil action against a law enforcement officer and granting administrative subpoena power to the Department of Justice in pattern or practice investigations.
Harvard law professor Ronald Sullivan says qualified immunity would always be a tough selling point for Democrat and Republican lawmakers to agree on despite, as Sullivan put it, “Blanket immunity that we see now don’t work, and we know that they don’t work because we see Black bodies littering the streets.”
“If police officers knew that immunity was pierced more, I think they would be more thoughtful about the decisions they make,” he continued. “On the other end of the debate, we don’t want our officers second-guessing themselves so much that it results in harm to them or harm to innocents around and you have to balance that in a meaningful sort of way.”
Professor Sullivan feels more can be done to address systemic issues within policing that adversely impacts Black communities. Hiring more officers of color could help improve policing he said, but he emphasized more investments in community policing will have a greater impact because “officers know the individuals in the area they patrol, and this helps with their discretion.”
Sullivan believes municipalities must address causal factors to curb crime from the root by tackling areas of education, access to good jobs, capital, and housing to make crime a less attractive option for would-be criminals.
Even though police reform efforts have stopped in their tracks at the federal level in Congress — the bill stood no realistic chance of gaining enough Republican support to pass the Senate no matter what compromises Democrats made — at the state level legislatures have implemented notable changes.
“There have been some significant changes, some states have eliminated qualified immunity at the state level, like Colorado and New Mexico passing comprehensive civil rights bills, other states have decriminalized traffic offenses,” said Rahsaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program of the ACLU of Massachusetts.
Several states have restricted or banned no-knock warrants, and at least 17 states have restricted or banned chokeholds by police, The Associated Press reports.
As for Ellis, he hopes supporters of police reform use this moment to recapture the energy it had in the days following the murder of George Floyd to keep the social and racial justice movement going.