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US lags on police reform a year after George Floyd's murder

David Sloan Washington
May 25, 2021

The murder of George Floyd led to renewed calls for reforms in policing. But one year on, many Americans say not enough has happened to help stop police violence against Black people.

Protester in Atlanta carrying signs against police violence
The guilty verdict against Derek Chauvin brought some closure, however police reforms are still a long way offImage: John Arthur Brown/Zumapress/picture alliance

The powerful image of former police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of George Floyd sparked protests not only throughout the United States, but across the world. The memorials and murals that sprang up in his name shone a spotlight on lawmakers and police departments, spurring debate around how they would address and enact change in their policies and their approach. 

Months later, the nation watched the trial of Chauvin and eventually breathed a collective sigh of relief when he was found guilty. As many celebrated the outcome, only 10 miles from the courthouse in Minneapolis, protests erupted after the video of Daunte Wright was released, another African American man who died at the hands of the police. The moment was sobering, as some had hoped that the nation had reached a turning point regarding justice reform. 

During the past year, the country has watched police forces push back against calls for reforms; meanwhile, videos continue to surface showing police officers abusing their power through unnecessary force against Black people. Such images of abuse are playing a major role in changing the way people view policing and race relations. 

Does Black Lives Matter still matter?

The Black Lives Matter movement, already underway for years before Floyd's murder, was instrumental in elevating Floyd's death at a national and international level. As protests spread from city to city, lawmakers and other officials came under pressure to listen to calls for change in policing, and other social justice issues. 

In Washington, DC, thousands of activists descended upon the city in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, to help keep Floyd's murder in the public eye. For several weeks, they were met with aggressive and at times violent retaliation from the US National Guard. In response, Mayor Muriel Bowser commissioned a mural displaying the words "Black Lives Matter" outside the White House grounds. 

These symbolic gestures helped to bring the movement into mainstream culture. Brands, sports teams and celebrities have latched onto and been criticized for co-opting the demonstrations. One year later, however, the movement may be losing some of its momentum and identity.

"Black Lives Matter is one of many heads that are emerging in terms of civil and human rights," said Maurice Hobson, an associate professor of Africana studies at Georgia State University. "And so, believe me, there's something that is going to happen in years to come — another shooting or the like — that is going to be more egregious than what happened to George Floyd. I mean, this is America."

Although Floyd's death did push Black Lives Matter toward mainstream recognition, Hobson said this is just another iteration of other civil rights movements, and similar groups are likely to pop up in future. 

Reforming the police 

Police reform in the US

Law enforcement officers handle calls ranging from criminal activity to mental health crises. As first responders, they are expected to deescalate situations — but training has emphasized firearm and self-defense skills for police recruits. 

"On average across the nation, police officers receive 60 hours of weapon training, and they only receive 10 hours of deescalation training," said Keturah Herron, a Black Lives Matter activist in Kentucky. "They're trained to attack first."

"The structure of policing is not equipped to deal with issues, unless they're responding with force," Herron said. "I don't know that it's training ... I think we have to change the philosophy."

Proposals ranging from diverting funding from police departments to adding transparency measures are beginning to take shape across the United States. 

In Ithaca, New York, the mayor and city officials have proposed replacing their police department with a new city agency. In Washington, DC, police will now not always be the first response to mental health calls. Instead, unarmed teams of health experts will be sent to the scene initially.

At the same time, police unions remain defiant and have actively fought against reforms. 

A memorial to George Floyd in Minneapolis
Floyd's murder increased calls for police reform — but action has been slowImage: Mark Hertzberg/ZUMA Wire/picture-alliance

'History playing out'

President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and a Democratic-majority Congress have pushed for legislation that would address issues regarding police brutality.

The House of Representatives recently passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, along party lines, which addresses police training and tactics that could cause bodily harm. The bill is currently at an impasse due to a deeply divided Senate. Senate Republicans have said they cannot support the bill in its current form, but are willing to work on a slimmed-down version.

Some observers worry that Biden and Harris are not the right leaders for the job. As Senator, Biden supported legislation that some say promoted the incarceration of African American men and women. He backed the 1994 crime bill, which imposed tough sentencing and contributed to the mass incarceration problem the US faces today.

Protester in North Carolina holding up a sign reading Truth Matters, We Matter
Is the Black Lives Matter movement losing some of its momentum?Image: TNS/ABACA/picture alliance

As the district attorney for San Francisco and later the attorney general of California,
Harris has a mixed record on criminal justice reform. Her office defended the state's "three strikes" law, which mandated decades-long prison sentences for many people convicted of multiple felonies. Harris also fought against a 2011 Supreme Court ruling that ordered California to release several thousand people convicted of nonviolent crimes from the state's overcrowded prisons after multiple courts had found conditions dangerous and unsanitary. After Harris was elected to Senate in 2016, she attempted to make amends by sponsoring numerous pieces of legislation supporting criminal justice reform.

"I think that there's hope. And I think that there's an opportunity for the Biden administration to atone for his past indiscretions, but I'm not seeing that yet," Hobson said. "Until I see that, it's just history playing out."

In his first address at the US Capitol, in late April, Biden called upon Congress to pass and send a criminal justice reform bill to his desk by the end of May. That deadline will be missed, and Biden's past agenda leaves many suspicious about whether he will follow through.

"I don't think we can expect anything from them," Herron said. "I think that we have to continue to demand them to do things."

#BlackLivesMatter: A campaign goes viral