By Sacha Sloan
As former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin stands trial for the murder of George Floyd, a bill that would transform U.S. policing is steadily making its way through Washington. On March 3rd, 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R.1280 — also called the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act — which would institute various reforms for law enforcement agencies across the country, from banning chokeholds and qualified immunity to strengthening accountability by creating new federal standards for police departments.
Compared to other wealthy nations, U.S. civilians are killed by police officers at staggeringly high rates, with communities of color disproportionately bearing the brunt of this violence. These grim disparities are caused by centuries-old systemic racism and unjust legal protections that are embedded within federal, state, and local police departments across the U.S. H.R.1280 aims to combat these longstanding problems.
Under the bill, haphazard federal regulations for law enforcement would become more uniform: using recommendations from the 2015 Task Force on 21st Century Policing, the U.S. Attorney General would institute new national accreditation standards for law enforcement agencies. Those state law enforcement agencies unwilling to adopt these standards would lose grant money. Moreover, the federal government would create programs to proactively scrutinize laws that facilitate officer abuse, and would fund studies to examine the effects of apprehension techniques newly mandated by the bill. Across the country, police cadets learn very little about de-escalation tactics that can help reduce civilian deaths; H.R.1280 would require such instruction during police training. Community organizations, too, would be able to receive grants to assist departments in these transitions toward safer policing.
The bill would also bolster investigations into and transparency around police misconduct. The rehiring of officers with a history of problematic conduct is rife in police departments nationwide: a recent Yale Law School study found that in Florida, three percent of all active officers previously had been fired by another agency. To ensure that departments avoid hiring abusive officers, the legislation directs DOJ to create a publicly accessible internet database of instances of use of force by police officers, along with a national registry of officers found to have engaged in misconduct.
The bill aims to further strengthen accountability by requiring federal law enforcement officers to use body and dash cameras; by eliminating qualified immunity, which shields officers from most lawsuits; and by making officers liable for “reckless” rather than only “willful” misconduct. It also includes stronger subpoena power for those who investigate police misconduct.
H.R.1280 is not a panacea for the problems in American policing. Critics contend that relying on federal funding to coerce police departments into compliance may be ineffective given that local law enforcement agencies are funded primarily by the states. Further, many skeptical advocates balk at funneling more money into police departments, arguing instead for the defunding of law enforcement and increased spending on social programs. Advocates also worry that transparency alone may do little to reduce police brutality. What’s more, increased transparency is only as good as the data itself; most of the bill’s reforms rely on police reports, which are not always truthful. And even when transparency reforms are successfully enacted, accountability is not guaranteed: last summer, New York lawmakers repealed a law enabling police departments to shield disciplinary records from public scrutiny, but state police have continued to fight to keep these records secret.
Critiques aside, the sweeping changes to police accountability and transparency envisioned by the George Floyd Justice in Policing Bill are long overdue. As it stands, the bill’s fate in an evenly divided Senate remains unclear. Lawmakers have an opportunity to show where their priorities lie: increased confidence that police officers are working for the public safety of us, or continued impunity of those who abuse the public trust.