Progress on Police Reform

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George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Andrew Brown, Daunte Wright, and far too many other Black and Brown men, women, and children have been killed at the hands of a policing system that does not value Black and Brown lives.

Democratic lawmakers in the states and Black Lives Matter protestors responded to the injustice by demanding a change in our nation’s policing system. Democrats passed laws to protect civil liberties, increase safety in communities, and restore justice in policing for Black and Brown people. From banning chokeholds to removing qualified immunity, state legislatures are working to correct a biased and unfair system.

Here’s a roundup of the laws passed just in the last year in 16 blue states:

Excessive Force

We have a police brutality problem and it’s ripping our families and communities apart. That’s why many Democratic-led states are addressing the use of excessive force. They raised the bar for when and how police officers can use physical restraints to handle encounters with civilians, which will help reduce violence in communities, and banned or limited the use of chokeholds or other strangulation maneuvers — but that’s just the start.

Map of state banning chokeholds: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington
States that have banned chokeholds in the last year.

Following a summer of racial justice protests that police responded to aggressively, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington passed laws banning the use of tear gas to disperse crowds without warning. The right to assemble — to make our voices heard — is an important one, and Democrats are ensuring that we can do it safely. Military tactics should not be used by police against those exercising their first amendment rights. 

Officer Accountability

Banning excessive force means nothing if officers are still able to commit violence with impunity. Loopholes to avoid reporting incidents, qualified immunity, and lack of transparency in officer records all have to be addressed to increase accountability.

Banning excessive force means nothing if officers are still able to commit violence with impunity.

Democratic state legislatures from coast to coast passed laws mandating officers hold each other accountable. In Oregon, Massachusetts, Washington, and Virginia, officers are now required to intervene if a colleague is abusing someone in their custody; Colorado will even decertify officers who don’t intervene. Body cameras are also being required in more states than ever before, providing recordings of questionable interactions.

Accountability needs to be enforced in our legal system as well. Maryland became the first state in the nation to repeal its so-called police “bill of rights,” which gave police officers special treatment under the law. In Maryland and Virginia, civilians will now play a role in police oversight and discipline. In the same vein, Colorado and New Mexico removed, and Connecticut and Massachusetts weakened, qualified immunity for law enforcement — meaning that people can now sue police officers who violate their rights, one of the key reforms activists demanded. Both of these changes will ensure that police officers are held to the same standards as civilians.

Democratic state legislatures from coast to coast passed laws mandating officers hold each other accountable.

Many states are also making it harder for the police to hide a bad record. Before these laws, officers could rack up complaints, quit and be rehired somewhere else after departments failed to disclose personnel records. Colorado passed a law preventing officers who are fired for misconduct from being rehired elsewhere. Maryland and Washington also passed legislation making it easier to share police personnel files or use of force incidents, so they can’t hide any misconduct from the public eye. All of these accountability measures, from within and outside of law enforcement, are holding police to standards set by their community.

Law Enforcement Tactics

We need to improve police relationships with communities, and that starts by changing the tactics they use. Democratic lawmakers reformed officer training, so it focuses less on military-style threat reduction and more on peaceful de-escalation tactics. In Virginia, police will be trained in de-escalation techniques and in Maryland, officers are required to prioritize de-escalation tactics. 

Virginia took the step of banning no-knock search warrants — the police tactic that led to the death of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky. Maryland and Massachusetts lawmakers also significantly limited the use of no-knock search warrants. Requiring police officers to announce themselves rather than breaking down doors will go a long way to making our communities safer. 

"We see about 8 to 10 cases per year where a completely innocent person is killed among these [no-knock] raids."
-Radley Balko, investigate journalist, June 2020

To better protect those in mental health crisis when 911 is called, Democratic states have included health services in their reforms. In Virginia, Democrats passed legislation that sets up mobile crisis co-response teams that include a mental health professional and a police officer to better respond to emergency calls by putting mental health first. New York now requires the police to offer medical and mental health assistance to those in custody if they need it.

Racism in Policing

Racial injustice is a systemic issue in the United States, and blue states took steps to reduce racism in law enforcement. New York and Massachusetts prohibited race-based profiling, and New York now mandates that the police track race and ethnicity data when they arrest people. Spurred by Amy Cooper calling the police on a Black birdwatcher and falsely claiming he “tried to assault” her, a number of states, including California, New Jersey, and Virginia, banned filing false reports, including false 911 calls, which can be biased against people of color. These changes have the potential to reduce racism in and around policing, but there’s still so much more to be done.

One major way to reduce racial injustice and rebuild community trust is to legalize cannabis. Virginia, New Mexico, New Jersey, and New York passed legislation legalizing recreational marijuana this year — now, more than 40% of Americans live in states where cannabis is legal. This is also an important step in the fight for racial justice, as communities of color are disproportionately arrested and fined for cannabis use. Alongside legalization, many of these bills also include provisions that will expunge records for marijuana-related convictions. New York’s bill will direct 40% of revenue from marijuana sales to be reinvested in communities hit hardest by the war on drugs. These Democratic states aren’t just legalizing cannabis — they’re working to address the harm drug laws have inflicted on communities of color.

These Democratic states aren’t just legalizing cannabis — they’re working to address the harm drug laws have inflicted on communities of color.

In the past year, state Democrats responded to police injustice against Black and Brown people by passing laws to reform our nation’s biased policing system. They’ve changed law enforcement policies to better safeguard communities, protect our civil liberties, and improve justice for people of color — all of which will help to reduce deaths and make the police more accountable to the communities they are duty-bound to serve. The fight against injustice is never over, but with Democrats leading, blue states are heading in the right direction.