Maryland repealed its Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, which had been in effect for half a century. Washington state reformed its use-of-force policies and established a new agency to investigate officers who use lethal force. In addition, California overcame police union objections to ensure that officers fired in one jurisdiction could not be hired in another.
These are just a few of the far-reaching policing changes enacted this year in response to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. However, the rest of the country’s reaction to the first full year of state legislative sessions since his death sparked a summer of racial justice protests was far more mixed.
A number of states enacted incremental reforms, such as prohibiting chokeholds or tightening restrictions on the use of body cameras, while several Republican-led states responded by granting police even greater authority and passing laws that cracked down on protesters.
State action on both sides of the debate occurred as Congress failed to enact policing reforms aimed at increasing officer accountability. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act passed the United States House without a single Republican vote before collapsing in the Senate, which was evenly divided.
Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents more than 356,000 law enforcement officers, believes Congress can still pass police reform legislation, but only after another deadly case captures the nation’s attention.
He claims that the trend of states passing their own policing measures based on their politics is further dividing an already fractured country. Partisanship was at work in Maryland, which became the first state 50 years ago to pass an officers’ bill of rights that provided job protections in the police disciplinary process, measures that eventually spread to about 20 other states. It became the first state to repeal those rights this year, after lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled General Assembly overrode Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto.
They replaced the bill of rights with new procedures that allow civilians to participate in police discipline. Democratic lawmakers also banded together to pass other reforms over Hogan’s objections or without his signature, such as granting the public access to police disciplinary records and establishing a unit in the state attorney general’s office to investigate police-involved deaths.
An ambitious set of reforms in Washington state will prohibit police from using chokeholds and no-knock warrants, establish a new state agency to investigate police use of deadly force, and lower the threshold for when officers can use force. Some law enforcement officials have stated that they are unclear about what they are expected to do, which has resulted in disagreements about how to respond to specific situations.
California established a statewide certification system for officers, in part to prevent officers fired in one jurisdiction from working in another. The bill was stalled in the legislature last year and has struggled to gain traction this year due to opposition from police unions. It was amended to allow for the suspension of an officer’s license as a lesser punishment and to include other safeguards.
California also mandated that the state attorney general’s office investigate all fatal police shootings of unarmed civilians, established when officers have a duty to intervene to prevent or report excessive force, and raised the minimum age to become a police officer from 18 to 21.
The state reform bills passed in 2021 are significant because they promote accountability for police officers, which can shift officer behavior if the changes are implemented, according to Puneet Cheema, manager of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s Justice in Public Safety Project.
To try to prevent violent encounters with the police in the first place, she said governments need to limit what police are asked to do — such as whether or not they should respond to people experiencing a mental health crisis or make certain traffic stops.