Visions of Equity
A view of "Say Their Names Cemetery" on March 9, 2021 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Chris Tuite—ImageSPACE/AP
May 13, 2021 6:30 AM EDT

In the weeks after George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer last May, the insistence that his death would be—must be—the last such killing at the hands of law enforcement became a popular refrain. “I think what’s happened here is one of those great inflection points in American history, for real, in terms of civil liberties, civil rights, and just treating people with dignity,” Joe Biden, then still a candidate for the presidency, told CBS News. Republican pollster Frank Luntz declared, “We are a different country today than just 30 days ago.”

The numbers paint a far different story. Since June 2020, police in the U.S. have killed people across different backgrounds at virtually the same rate that they have for the past five years, according to several surveys, despite a pandemic that kept many people at home. As of April 30, there had only been six days this year on which police did not kill a civilian while on duty, according to Mapping Police Violence. Many promised reforms have stalled at the state level—including in the Minnesota legislature—as well as in Washington, with the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 dying in the Senate. (An updated version passed the House in March but faces a similar uphill Senate battle.)

“Simply put, you’re not seeing a reduction when you look at the data on killings by police,” says Samuel Sinyangwe, the co-founder of Campaign Zero and Mapping Police Violence.

The brunt of this violence is still directed disproportionately at Black people. According to Mapping Police Violence, Black people were 28% of those killed by police in 2020 despite being only 13% of the population; they were three times more likely to be killed by police than white people, more likely to be unarmed and less likely to be threatening someone when killed. “Many people might think that they have a grasp on how widespread racial disparities in policing are,” Sinyangwe says. “But when you look at the numbers, it is mind boggling.”

There are many reasons to doubt that these numbers will improve any time soon, especially given new waves of high-profile police killings, local legislation to protect police, and another reversal in public opinion regarding Black Lives Matter. Some activists see no change in police use of force in their city. But others say that many of their proposed reforms are slowly being implemented across the country with positive results—and that Floyd’s death will continue to have an impact on policy and perception for years to come. “A lot of things are just rolling out: we didn’t get here in a year and it’s not going to be finished in a year,” says Tracie Keesee, the co-founder and Senior Vice President of Justice Initiatives at the Center for Policing Equity. “You do see some movement—but it all highlights how complex this is, and how much work truly still needs to be done.”

“Moving in the Opposite Direction”

While many people demanded this year that change come from the top, the federal government has mostly proved unable to enact reform on a widespread level. At the Capitol, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act lay dormant for months before being voted on in the house largely along party lines. It passed by a slim margin, but is unlikely to pass in the senate, where it faces a potential filibuster. At the same time, public favorability ratings for Black Lives Matter have slipped 10% since cresting in June 2020, when 60% of respondents said they trusted the movement. Meanwhile, the same poll showed trust in law enforcement rising to 69% in March, from 56% last summer. (A majority of white people have never supported the Black Lives Matter movement, according to a separate poll by Civiqs.)

Even if the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act passes, it will have limited power over the 18,000 different law enforcement agencies across the country, each of which has its own policies, procedures and politics. And many of those local precincts and legislatures have shown extreme resistance to any kind of reform. In fact, several Republican-controlled state legislatures are only ramping up police power, capitalizing on the fear of violence that stemmed from last year’s protests. Kentucky, Iowa and Arizona all have either passed bills or have measures in progress to increase penalties for rioting and to protect officers. “We’re seeing in many places they’re actually moving in the opposite direction,” Sinyangwe says.

One of those places is Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill on April 19 that he described as “the strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country.” Miles Mulrain Jr., an Orlando-based activist and the executive director of the nonprofit Let Your Voice Be Heard, called the bill a “slap in the face,” especially given the many pledges that local officials made last summer. “When the protests were at their height, you saw a lot of officers and different agencies reaching out, having these Zoom calls and town halls to say, ‘We care, we don’t want to be like these other cities,’” Mulrain recounts. Mulrain himself was asked to be part of a social justice task force with elected officials and local leaders. “We came up with a lot of different things, but it didn’t develop to anything actionable,” he says. “I haven’t seen any structural change that came from this wave that hit the whole country and world last year.”

Mulrain says that this inaction is exemplified by the case of Salaythis Melvin, who was shot to death by police on August 7, 2020. While officers initially said that Melvin had turned toward police with a gun before being shot, body-cam footage—released by the Orange County Sheriff’s Office a day after the sheriff’s election—shows Melvin running away from police and a distance of about three car lengths from them when he is shot. In January, the State Attorney’s Office took over the investigation; no charges have been filed, and the officer who killed Melvin is back on full duty. “This has raised how police aren’t held accountable: they have all these loopholes,” Mulrain says.

In Texas, Governor Greg Abbot said he would make it “fiscally impossible” for Austin, the state’s progressive capitol city, to continue its efforts to defund the police. And in Minnesota, the ground zero of the summer’s movement for racial justice, police reform fell apart as state Democrats and Republicans hit gridlock.

As pledges to improve policing flail, police continue to kill people, and especially Black people, every day. On April 11, Daunte Wright was shot to death at a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center, Minn., a few miles from where Floyd was killed, by an officer who says she mistook her gun for her Taser. On March 29, Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old Latino boy, was shot to death on the West Side of Chicago, with the Chicago Police Department later waffling between whether or not he was armed. On April 12, 17-year-old Anthony J. Thompson, a Black high school student, was shot to death by an officer in a school bathroom; the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation also released contradictory information about the incidents that led to his killing.

Progress At Local Levels

But some activists say that while plenty about police brutality in America remains bleak, progress is being steadily made on local levels that bode well for a different future. Sinyangwe and Keesee say that Floyd’s death and the ensuing protests were the catalysts for many implementations of reform that their organizations have been demanding for years. In Denver for instance, a program that allows 911 operators to dispatch mental health clinicians and paramedics to nonviolent incidents instead of police was launched last June. In the program’s first six months, the new team responded to 748 incidents, none of which led to arrests or jail time; the program will receive millions more in funding.

The program makes a lot of sense to Keesee, who spent 25 years with the Denver Police Department. “There were thousands of calls I went on where I could tell you that I was not the right person for them; I was not what they needed at the time,” she says. “But it was the only option at the time. And communities today are telling you that is no longer no longer an answer to what they need.”

Keesee sees other signs of progress, like chokeholds being banned by many large police departments and body-cam footage generally being released faster than in years past.

The Berkeley City Council in California approved a measure to remove armed police from low-level traffic enforcement; the measure could have a significant impact due to the fact that vehicle stops frequently escalate into violence—and that officers provoke that violence more frequently than the motorists, according to a recent Stanford Law Review article. A report by the Center for Policing Equity found that Black people are 6.5 times more likely than white people per capita to be pulled over by the Berkeley Police Department.

And Maryland became the first state to repeal its police Bill of Rights, which is designed to protect officers from investigation or discipline. “This is huge because it’s never happened before; it represents a huge challenge to the power of the police,” Sinyangwe says.

As local efforts slowly progress, Biden’s Justice Department has taken a much more aggressive approach toward police reform than its predecessor. Within the last month, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland announced investigations of law enforcement in Minneapolis and Louisville, Ky., where Breonna Taylor was shot to death in her home by police. The investigations could lead to the reform of training, use-of-force policies, and systems of accountability.

These announcements are encouraging to activists—but they’re not waiting around for the federal government to save them, and are continuing to push for reform in dozens of cities and states across the country. “I think there is momentum there that wasn’t there before,” Sinyangwe says.

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