Progressive Futures

US police reform: Radical change or congressional gridlock?

15 July 2020

The grassroots movement to ‘defund’ the police and the concomitant protests across the US and the wider world represent a ‘tipping point’ for both minorities and their progressive allies from across civil society

Mark Roden

Defunding the Police: The grassroots impetus for change

The issues of systemic racism and police brutality have been catapulted to the forefront of US and global political discourse following the death of George Floyd on the 25 May at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer.  This event,  which follows on from several other well publicised deaths of black citizens at the hands of the police over a number of years, triggered weeks of civil unrest in cities across the US which rivalled the intensity of  anger precipitated by the murder of Martin Luther King in 1968, and the beating of Rodney King in 1992. Moreover, the militarised police response to those protesting George Floyd’s death, most notably the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, witnessed protesters and journalists being beaten, tear gassed, and fired upon with rubber bullets, which induced a vast backlash against law enforcement.  The most powerful manifestation of this backlash has been a call to ‘defund’ the police.

Defunding the police involves reallocating money from police departments towards other government agencies funded by local municipalities with particular emphasis on shifting resources to social programmes such as mental health, addiction and homelessness programmes. Such moves, argue activists, would constitute a better reflection of taxpayer priorities and would involve a ‘roll back’ of the role of police in communities, thus ‘deescalating’ tensions between police and minorities, and allowing the police to refocus their attention on other priorities.

The cause of ‘defunding’ the police has won key allies among progressive members of the US Congress  , including Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who called for a $1 billion cut to the New York Police Department’s (NYPD’s) $6 billion annual budget “that costs us books in the hands of our children…and very badly needed investment in public housing.”  New York’s Democratic Mayor, Bill de Blasio, initially said he would not countenance any such move.  Political pressure and a week of robust ‘defund the police’ protests outside City Hall, however, led de Blasio to reverse this decision and on 29 June he announced that a $1 billion reduction in the NYPD budget was being ‘negotiated’ with the city council. This will potentially include reduced spending on NYPD capital projects by $500 million while reviewing the NYPD’s role in schools.  The Mayor said “we need to redistribute revenue to communities that need it most” with the bulk of the money being diverted into an underfunded public housing system and youth programmes.   Moreover,  New York has also disbanded an anti-crime unit, consisting of 600 plain clothes officers, which was involved in the 2014 killing of another unarmed black man, Eric Garnerusing the now fiercely contested chokehold method.

In Minneapolis, the city council has gone further and voted to disband the Police Department in its entirety – a move which has been supported by another progressive Democrat Congressional Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who deemed the department to be “beyond reform.” Crucially, several other US cities have responded to the pressure emanating from grassroots activists and civil society. Los Angeles is to reallocate at least $100 million from the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) towards programmes for minority communities. The Democratic Mayor of San Francisco, London Breed, has said she wishes to work with the community to “reprioritise” funding and Baltimore City Council has voted to reallocate $22 million away from the Police Department’s fiscal budget for 2021 and to redirect the money towards recreational centres, trauma centres and forgivable loans for black-owned businesses.

More mainstream Democrats and the Biden Presidential campaign have approached the ‘defunding’ debate with a great deal more trepidation.  On 7 June Joe Biden stated: “No, I don’t support defunding the police. I support conditioning federal aid to the police based on whether or not they meet certain basic standards of decency and honourableness.” The Biden campaign has, however, thrown its weight behind increased spending on social programmes separate from local police budgets and has also called for more resources for police training, body cameras and community policing approaches.

What is clear is that the ‘defund’ the police campaign, undergirded by BLM activism, has gained huge traction across the US – and further afield – and is helping to push for radical change within the US’s established two-party political system.  Both the Democrats and the Republicans have introduced police reform packages but these have, almost inevitably, become bogged down in Congressional gridlock and a system prone to inertia and stagnation which too often thwarts any sense of political initiative.  Let’s now consider the police reforms emanating from the two main parties and the ways in which they both affirm and reject the need to combat systemic racial injustice with a radical and transformative approach.

Approaches to Police Reform in Congress

On June 8 the Democrats responded to pressure from activists and the growing salience of BLM by introducing the Justice in Policing Bill 2020 in the House of Representatives. The bill represented the most far-reaching reforms to policing sought by Congress in years but sidestepped issues of defunding, or even abolishing, aspects of law enforcement.  House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, said “we cannot settle for anything less than transformative structural change” and the measures put forward propose tackling many of the issues pertaining to police brutality, which stemmed directly from the George Floyd killing and its aftermath. The legislation would ban chokeholds by police at the federal level, set up a national database for tracking police misconduct, and would prohibit ‘no knock’ warrants.

Crucially, the bill aims to make it easier to pursue legal damages when police violate civil rights by ending ‘qualified immunity’ which protects law officers from facing prosecution, or being sued, even for the most egregious transgressions. Finally, the bill sought to end racial profiling and racial bias in policing while limiting the transfer of military hardware to police forces.  It is worthy of note that police forces in cities such as Denver, Chicago and Phoenix  banned  the use of chokeholds of their own volition in the wake of George Floyd’s death, demonstrating that the pressure emanating from the BLM protestors was beginning to permeate even the traditionally hyper-conservative structures of law enforcement.

The major fault lines in US politics often revolve around assessments as to the role Congress should play vis– à- vis states’ rights – that is, the political powers held by the state governments rather than the federal government. In this vein, the Republican response to the Democrats’ Justice and Policing Bill was to immediately castigate its ambitious goals as constituting Congressional ‘overreach’ and an attempt to impose unwelcome top-down federal reform on states. It is worth bearing in mind that of the almost 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the US only a dozen are federal – so resistance to action from the centre is baked into a system which, as previously stated, often gravitates towards gridlock in the face of national challenges. On 16 June, Senate Majority Leader and Trump’s main political facilitator, Mitch McConnell, stated: “Democrats want to federalise all these issues….and control everything in Washington. We have no interest in that.”

On 16 June   President Trump  issued an Executive Order to ‘encourage’ police departments to meet certain standards including banning chokeholds; to establish a database to track officers with multiple complaints of misconduct against them, and to ‘incentivise’ the police to involve mental health professionals and social workers in issues pertaining to addiction, homelessness and mental illness.

The Congressional Republicans’ reaction to the growing clamour for police reform was to introduce piecemeal and tokenistic legislation designed to ‘incentivise’ police departments to change their ways rather than to compel reform.   On 17 June the Republican Party followed up on the President’s reluctant Executive Order with their police reform bill, which was introduced in the Senate by Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina.  There were areas of overlap with the Democrats’ Justice in Policing Bill such as improving data collection on police use of force; encouraging a cessation in the use of ‘no knock’ warrants and enhanced documentation of police misconduct. However, on the substantive issues of banning the use of chokeholds by police at the national level and ending “qualified immunity” there was a palpable lack of commitment to federal action prompting Democratic House Judiciary Chairman, Rep Jerry Nadler of New York, to comment “this is not a time for fake reform.”

On 24 June the Republican police reform bill failed to reach the 60 vote threshold in the Senate as Democrats moved to block it.  On 25 June the Democrats’ renamed George Floyd Justice in Policing Bill 2020 passed in the House of Representatives (236-181) along party lines.  At the time of writing the Democratic bill is likely to languish in the Senate with Senate Majority Leader McConnell saying “it is going nowhere.”  While the Democrat  bill is essentially gradualist in nature it has nevertheless induced a wholly obstructionist response from the Administration with President Trump accusing Speaker Pelosi of “trying to appease the radical left” and insisting that the majority of “Americans want law and order”  in preference to meaningful police reform.

This is not surprising given the racist narrative which has characterised the Trump Administration from calling Nazi protestors at a Charlottesville ‘Unite the Right’ rally ‘very fine people’, in August 2017,  to retweeting a video of a Trump supporter chanting ‘white power’ in Florida at the end of June 2020.  The far-right trajectory of the Trump administration, and the wider acquiescence of the Republican Party, has also been evidenced by the visceral reaction to BLM protestors who have been vilified as ‘thugs’ and ‘crazed left-wing mobs.’  BLM were brutally, and infamously, dispersed from a peaceful protest in Lafayette Square by law enforcement carrying out the orders of Trump’s sycophantic Attorney General, William Barr – all to facilitate an execrable photo shoot of Trump holding a bible outside St. John’s Episcopal Church. Meanwhile, an increasingly autocratic Trump has placed himself firmly on the side of those defending Confederate monuments from being pulled down by activists across the Southern states.

By contrast the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act has been supported by civil rights groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), National Action Network and the Urban League.  At the global level, 54 African countries and more than 600 human rights groups called on the UN Human Rights Councilto investigate systemic racism and police brutality in the wake of the George Floyd killing. The US withdrew from the US Human Rights Council two years ago but this hasn’t deterred the lawyer representing George Floyd, Benjamin Crump, from urging the UN to ‘intervene’ by encouraging the US government to “press federal criminal charges” against officers involved in police brutality.   Though the remit of the Council’s meeting was intended to focus on racism and police violence globally, it brought into sharp focus the BLM message and the specific circumstances of African Americans living within the discriminatory socio-economic framework of the US legal system.

The grassroots movement to ‘defund’ the police and the concomitant protests across the US and the wider world represent, in many senses, a ‘tipping point’ for both minorities and their progressive allies from across civil society. While the vagaries of a US political system that is prone to systemic gridlock and inertia have thus far prevented legislative action this has to be seen within the wider context of a US culture war whereby the Trump Administration has mobilised white nationalism against a Democratic Party that embraces multiculturalism and relies on an alliance of ethnic minorities, women, LGBTQ, and younger progressive whites for election victory. That said, an inveterate Democratic establishment figure such as Joe Biden is, to a degree, in hock to corporate interests , and are therefore less likely to take on board radical reforms of the type advocated by activists wishing to ‘defund’ the police  – for reasons of both political expediency and instinctive centrism. As we have seen, figures from the progressive left, such as Representative Ocasio-Cortez, have been tasked with carrying the progressive torch on radical police reform within Congress and, encouragingly, she is supported by a groundswell of activism both within the Democratic Party and in wider society which is engendering a climate for real change in the future.