As New Police Reform Laws Sweep Across the U.S., Some Ask: Are They Enough?

New York Times, April 18, 2021

By Steve Eder, Michael H. Keller and Blacki Migliozzi


In February, Illinois enacted a law that rewrote many of the state’s rules of policing, and mandated that officers wear body cameras. In March, New York City moved to make it easier for citizens to sue officers. This month, the Maryland legislature — which decades ago became the first to adopt a Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights — became the first to do away with it.

In recent months, state and city lawmakers across the country have seized on a push for reform prompted by outrage at the killing of George Floyd last May, passing legislation that has stripped the police of some hard-fought protections won over the past half-century.

“Police unions in the United States are pretty much playing defense at the moment,” said Brian Marvel, a San Diego officer and the president of California’s largest law enforcement labor organization. “You have groups of people that are looking for change — and some groups are looking for radical change.”

Over 30 states have passed more than 140 new police oversight and reform laws, according to a New York Times analysis of data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.


Amber Widgery, a policy expert at the organization, said many of the laws — restricting the use of force, overhauling disciplinary systems, installing more civilian oversight and requiring transparency around misconduct cases — give states far more influence over policing practices that have typically been left to local jurisdictions.

“We’re seeing the creation of really strong, centralized state guidance that sets a baseline for police accountability, behavior and standards” for all departments, she said.

It’s a remarkable, nationwide and in some places bipartisan movement that flies directly counter to years of deference to the police and their powerful unions. But the laws, and new rules adopted by police departments across the country, are not enough to satisfy demands by Black Lives Matter and other activists who are pushing for wholesale reforms, cultural shifts and cutbacks at law enforcement agencies.

“The focus has been so heavily on what do we do after harm has already been committed — after the police have already engaged in misconduct — and far less focused on how do we stop this from the beginning,” said Paige Fernandez, an advocate at the American Civil Liberties Union.

While Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis officer accused of murdering Mr. Floyd, was on trial last week, episodes in Virginia, Minnesota and Illinois — which have all enacted reforms — underscored how the new laws would not always prevent traumatic outcomes.


A police officer in Virginia was seen on video pointing a gun at a Black Army lieutenant and pepper-spraying him during a traffic stop. A veteran officer in Minnesota fatally shot 20-year-old Daunte Wright, a Black man, after pulling him over. And video recordings showed a Chicago officer chasing and fatally firing at 13-year-old Adam Toledo, a Latino, after he appeared to toss aside a gun while obeying commands to raise his hands. The events ignited fresh protests and more questions about why police interventions escalated into deaths of people of color.


“People aren’t necessarily happy with the change they’re seeing, because the same thing keeps happening,” said Stevante Clark, whose brother Stephon was killed by the Sacramento police in 2018. California enacted a law named after his brother that raised the standard for using lethal force, but Mr. Clark sees a need for the federal government to impose national regulations.


A memorial to Mr. Wright at the location where he was shot by a Brooklyn Center police officer. Credit...Victor J. Blue for The New York Times


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