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Police reforms quickly take hold across America. It’s only just getting started

(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)
(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

(CNN) -- One reform repeals a New York state statute that kept secret the personnel and disciplinary records of police officers, leaving the public in the dark about officers' abuse histories.

Other measures, from Florida to California, ban chokeholds and neck restraints like the one used on George Floyd the day he died in police custody in Minneapolis.

Another move, inspired by the nationwide clamor for reform by protesters after Floyd's death on Memorial Day, proposed dramatically slashing up to $150 million in funding to the Los Angeles Police Department.

Less than three weeks after the death of the unarmed 46-year-old black man, officials across the nation have introduced or passed sweeping, unprecedented reforms against the double scourge of police violence and racial injustice.

"It's critically important that we don't waste yet another moment in which we're continually reminded how much both racism and the lack of police accountability persist in America," said Craig Futterman, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School.

"The only way that we're ultimately going to see better, fairer, more just policing in America is by doing something different than what we've done before."

Much work remains, according to experts.

"It's nowhere near enough," Jonathan Smith, former chief of the special litigation section at the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said of the hodgepodge of police reforms.

"People are rushing to sort of grab the low hanging fruit and some of that low hanging fruit is really important. Banning chokeholds is really important. Creating more transparency is really important. But the problems run so much deeper. It's going to require a seriously sustained effort."

There's no national standard for 18,000 US police agencies

Despite the opposition of powerful police unions, the unprecedented reform measures have been largely pushed by state and local officials at a time of waning federal government oversight of law enforcement.

"I feel like now much more of that (reform) work can be done at the state and local level because there's a broader political set of supporters for it," said Christy Lopez, a Georgetown Law professor and former DOJ lawyer on police practice cases. "But I don't think it negates the need for federal enforcement and, more importantly, for federal leadership on this issue."

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo says he supports national policing standards.

"We have 18,000 police departments with 18,000 ways of doing business and 18,000 sets of policies, he said. "We have to have national standards . . . in terms of policy, law and training requirements."

Universal standards for reporting misconduct and abuse would help deal with the problem, according to Futterman, director of the law school's Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project.

"It remains beyond shameful that we still don't know and don't require police departments to report when police officers kill people," he said.

"So putting in place national standards for transparency that every police department has to report in a similar way when officers use force, when they're accused of misconduct, when they stop people, when they search people, those are critically important reforms."

The president promises police reform executive order

Changes in policing policy have been quickly enacted throughout the country since a video showed former officer Derek Chauvin last month kneeling on Floyd's neck for more than eight minutes. "I can't breathe" said Floyd, crying out for his mother before his death. Protests -- some violent -- erupted in the US and abroad. Chauvin was fired and eventually charged with second-degree murder. Three other officers were also fired and charged with felonies.

On Thursday in Dallas, President Donald Trump said only a few "bad apples" were responsible for police misconduct. He warned against labeling "tens of millions of decent Americans as racist or bigots." His attempts at racial conciliation, Trump insisted, will move "quickly and easily."

At a roundtable that included religious leaders and law enforcement, the president vowed to sign an executive order encouraging police nationwide to "meet the most current, professional standards for the use of force, including tactics for de-escalation."

Trump vaguely described as "force with compassion" the standard of force his executive order would propose.

Washington has all but abandoned Justice Department investigations into unconstitutional policing practices, leaving much of the work of reform to state and local governments. Trump was widely criticized after peaceful protesters were forcefully dispersed outside the White House this month with chemical irritants before a presidential photo opportunity.

"This administration not only retreated from law enforcement reforms but you see the president and the attorney general act in ways that are hostile to the community and encouraging bad conduct by police," said Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs in Washington.

"That's why communities are so angry and demanding such profound change right now."

From coastal cities to mid America, the protests continue to grow.

Federal legislation focuses on de-escalation and training

One response to the demands of protesters was legislation aimed at police brutality and racial injustice introduced this week by Democrats.

The legislation is the most expansive effort in recent years to address national policing practices at a federal level. But it faces resistance from Republicans, police unions and some local officials.

The sweeping bill includes a ban on chokeholds and the creation of a National Police Misconduct Registry "to prevent problem officers from changing jurisdictions to avoid accountability," according to a summary document.

"Banning chokeholds will help save lives and reduce harm starting now," Lopez said. "It seems to me that is a no-brainer."

At least 20 US cities and municipalities are starting to ban or have banned the use of choke holds, according to tally by CNN.

Those cities include Philadelphia, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, Miami, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, New York City, Denver and Houston.

"Most departments have not allowed chokeholds for decades," said Joe Gamaldi, national vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents more than 350,000 US law enforcement officers.

"We're supportive of de-escalation training. Most departments are already doing that. But if there needs to be a standard training and policy from the federal government on de-escalation we can be supportive of that."

The House Democrats' bill sets certain restrictions on the transfer of military-grade equipment to state and local law enforcement and requires federal uniformed police offers to wear body cameras. It also mandates racial bias training and teaching officers about their "duty to intervene."

"The answer typically for a police scandal is, 'We'll just do more training,'" Futterman said. "It's the easy thing to do... Without a doubt police officers need to be better trained and taught to de-escalate. There need to be stricter policies that ... prevent collusion after an incident of accused misconduct, that officers are separated like witnesses are separated and not allowed to speak with one another."

Lawmakers target 'qualified immunity'

The federal legislation would take aim at the legal doctrine known as "qualified immunity," which shields law enforcement from lawsuits alleging they violated the constitutional rights of people.

The 40-year-old doctrine shields officers and government officials from accountability, according to critics. Supporters argue that it protects an officer's ability to make a snap decision during potentially dangerous situations.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said ending qualified immunity is a top priority for Democrats in any bipartisan talks that could occur.

Trump considers ending qualified immunity "a nonstarter," said White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany.

"One of the ways in which officers have regularly escaped accountability, even when they've been found to have violated people's civil and constitutional rights, is by that doctrine of qualified immunity that protects all but the most malicious and plainly incompetent acts of policing," Futterman said.

Additionally, police union contracts often make it tougher to remove officers flagged for misconduct, according to government and former police officials and labor experts. Some union agreements outline how long police must wait to investigate an incident, how they can question officers and what they can ask, and how quickly investigations must be completed.

Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police, the country's largest and most powerful law enforcement union, said his organization will sit down with "anybody, anytime who wants to have a fact-based discussion" on public and police safety, and that these discussions were ongoing.

"I think it's hard to see a silver lining at the moment but, long term, situations like this provide an opportunity for growth," Gamaldi said. "Make no mistake: Nobody hates a bad cop more than a good cop."

Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said this week he was withdrawing from contract negotiations with the police union, which he accused of constraining reform.

The Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis urged the chief and the city to return to contract negotiations. The union said it is seeking "to set clear expectations, train employees as to those expectations, and improve accountability for both officers and supervisors who fail to conduct themselves accordingly."

There's a quest for transparency and openness

On Friday in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed what he called the "most aggressive" police reform legislative package in the nation in a move intended to make officers more accountable.

A key measure in the legislation -- vehemently opposed by a coalition of law enforcement unions -- will shatter the veil of secrecy that a 1976 law provided police personnel and disciplinary records.

The controversial law prevents the release of disciplinary records for police officers, firefighters or corrections officers without their written consent. The statute is known as Section 50-a of the New York State Civil Rights Law, which was enacted to exempt police officers from being cross-examined during criminal prosecutions, according to the bill.

The unions expressed concerns that all complaints -- including those not fully investigated or substantiated -- will be released. The coalition said judges already have discretion on releasing such records and that it worried officers would not have a chance to be heard.

Chauvin, the ex-Minneapolis cop charged with killing Floyd, had 18 prior internal affairs complaints filed against him. He received reprimands for two of them. The nature of the complaints is unclear.

"We've been too willing to give police a pass on oversight," Lopez said.

Officers who engage in egregious abuse have usually amassed numerous complaints over many years, according to Futterman.

"No department in the United States has regularly been using that information ... to investigate the obvious patterns of abuse and then seeking to get rid off and fire officers or groups of officers who have no business with a badge or a gun," he said.

The New York state legislation will designate the attorney general as an independent prosecutor in cases involving civilian deaths.

"It's the age old question of who polices the police, and what we've seen is that police have proven incapable of policing themselves," Futterman said. "This is one of the things that police departments across the nation do the worst."

There are calls to defund police agencies

The uproar for change has led to drastic calls for action in some places.

In Minneapolis, a veto-proof supermajority of the city council is considering a dismantling of the police department.

New York and Los Angeles are vowing millions of dollars in police funding cuts.

Lopez called the proposals to slash police funding "the most intentionally transformative moves" of the moment.

"But they concern me a little because they happened so quickly and I don't think it's a good idea ... to just pick a number and say slash the budget by that much or get rid of this number of officers without doing the work to figure out what's going to replace that and what you actually want your law enforcement to do," she said.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a shift of police department funding to youth and social services.

A group of city council members proposes to cut $1 billion from the NYPD's nearly $6 billion budget. Freddi Goldstein, the mayor's press secretary, told CNN on Saturday that de Blasio is "committed to reprioritizing funding and looking for savings, but he does not believe a $1 billion cut is the way to maintain safety."

In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti agreed to slash between $100 million and $150 million in proposed LAPD funding after Californians decried a proposal to increase its budget to $1.86 billion.

The People's Budget LA Coalition called Garcetti's pledge "a start" but said a $150 million cut would "still leave LAPD with 51% of the city's unrestricted revenues."

"That's astonishing," Lopez said of the amount remaining after the proposed cut. "To think what that money could be spent for and the good that it can do for communities. It strikes me as probably a good first step in LA and other communities should be looking at similar approaches."

In New York, Cuomo signed an executive order Friday making state funding to police contingent on law enforcement agencies developing a plan by April 1 to "reinvent and modernize police strategies," including use of force guidelines. Those plans would be enacted into law after consultation with the community.

Gamaldi, the Fraternal Order of Police national vice president, dismissed calls to defund or disband police departments as "a knee jerk reaction."

"It's very, very dangerous and all it's going to do is hurt our low income communities because they rely on us a great deal, and higher income communities are simply going to hire their own private security or police officers," he said.

Acevedo, Houston's police chief, called the disbanding of a police department "an invitation to chaos."

But defunding can shift policing money to badly needed mental health, domestic violence, homeless and educational services.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed, for instance, is proposing city police officers stop responding to issues like disputes between neighbors, reports about homeless people and school discipline interventions.

"Police officers would be the first people to tell you, 'We're being asked to solve all the nation's problems and we're not equipped to do so," Futterman said.

Smith, the executive director of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, said police reform efforts in America have been down this path many times.

"The movement for racial justice in our criminal system is not going to happen with new, changing legislation," he said. "It's a big project and it's going to take time and effort."

In 2016, Philando Castile was fatally shot by police during a traffic stop in Minnesota. At a forum after Floyd's death with the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College, his mother, Valerie Castile, lamented, "Here we are again."

"We've had so many working groups," she said of reform efforts. "We've had so many recommendations... I've sat and talked for four years, but here I find myself again. The same situation."