Protests for racial equality erupted in response to the alleged murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis, Minnesota Police Officers. Video of the March death of Daniel Prude at the hands of Rochester, New York police, and the shooting of Jacob Blake in the back by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, has provided fuel for the movement. Grand juries are sitting in those cases as well as the case of Breonna Taylor, who was killed by Louisville, Kentucky police. What those inquiries decide or, more importantly, don’t do will only serve as more accelerant for the movement. But are the protests having any effect?
Congress has done what it does best in the time of crisis, nothing. Democrats, at the urging of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, blocked a Republican police reform initiative. Conservatives remain in lockstep with the “law and order” President. A perspective that ignores police and prosecutors’ failure to adhere to law and order is the root of the problem. The “law and order” argument, in this case, is circular; enforcing laws equally will somehow result in unequal treatment of the police and the President’s white political base.
State legislatures have been largely stymied by the strength of police unions and their lobbyists. Massachusetts has made the most progress with the passage of a bill that includes the diminishing of qualified immunity for individual police officers. A policy that has shielded violent individual police officers from personal liability. Massachusetts’ police strenuous opposition to the measure ignores two issues. If police follow laws, policies, and procedures, they don’t need immunity. Second, like most professions, they can obtain private liability insurance as opposed to continued indemnification by taxpayers. In 2015, Boston paid $36 million to settle police-related lawsuits, not an insignificant amount.
Local city and town governments have passed minor measures. Philadelphia, Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. have banned the use of tear gas. The latter has also banned rubber bullets. Phoenix and Houston have banned chokeholds or their equivalent.
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Not all police departments have unilaterally opposed changes. In Dallas, the police chief imposed a “duty to intervene” if officers observe fellow officers using excessive force. In New York, the police commissioner disbanded the troubled, 600 officer plainclothes unit. The unit “was involved in some of the city’s most notorious police shootings,” according to the New York Times. The San Antonio Police Department has changed the way it responds to mental health calls and has banned “no-knock” warrants (the warrant used in the Breonna Taylor case).
One of the protest’s goals is stopping the ongoing, excessive, and illegal police conduct, particularly with respect to African Americans and other minorities. While that goal is far from being accomplished, incremental progress is being made.
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