Symposium | The State of Black America

Criminal Justice: When Will Black Lives Matter?

By Andrea M. Headley James E. Wright II

Tagged black lives matterCivil Rightspolice

In the summer of 2020, the world witnessed the unprecedented rise of civil unrest not seen since the civil rights movement of the 1950s and the 1960s. This rise was sparked by the wrongful deaths of both George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Floyd, a 46-year-old unarmed Black man, wheezed, “I can’t breathe,” as a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into the back of Floyd’s neck while he laid face-down in handcuffs, eventually killing him. Taylor, a 26-year-old Black emergency medical technician, was killed by police after they served a no-knock warrant at her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky and fatally shot her at least six times.

Both events were all too familiar to those in our society who have been brutalized and harassed by the police for generations. Yet the deaths of these two unarmed Black people triggered a reaction that could not have been foreseen. While a pandemic began to rage across the United States and the globe, people said “enough is enough”: The police must stop killing Black people. People from all racial and ethnic backgrounds coalesced to proclaim their disapproval of how police treat Black people in America, and across the globe. These protests attracted people around the world, from the dense urban streets of Los Angeles to the Queen’s Park Savannah in Trinidad and Tobago. 

Contemporary Issues Rooted in History

Despite these unprecedented protests, police killing Black people is not a new tragedy. Instead, it represents a scar that has plagued America since its founding. The Middle Passage represented one the earliest instances in which white people treated Black people as less than human while maintaining “law and order” on ships transporting Black bodies to the West. Fast forward to the 1700s and the first slave patrol was established in South Carolina to capture escaped Black bodies and return them to their white masters, to deter revolts, as well as to discipline and punish Black bodies for breaking plantation rules. Once these official slave patrols were disbanded after the Civil War, they were replaced by militia-style groups of citizens with tacit support from authorities to, once again, keep Black people “in their place.” Eventually, by the 1900s, local municipalities and towns established formal police departments that enforced Jim Crow laws, which formally relegated Black people to second-class citizens. 

Throughout history, we have seen thousands of Black individuals wrongfully killed by the police. In the last 50 years alone, victims include: Rita Lloyd (1973), Eula Mae Love (1979), Amadou Diallo (1999), Oscar Grant (2009), Eric Garner (2014), Michael Brown (2014), Tamir Rice (2014), Walter Scott (2015). In 2020, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were added to this tragic list that keeps growing.

Calling For Change: The Demands of Protest

The contemporary movement for Black lives in response to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and many other Black and Brown individuals, was centered on opposing police brutality and systemic racism. The protests called for various changes that can be grouped into two buckets: (a) changes to police policy and practice and (b) dismantling and/or defunding the police. Traditional police reform efforts often entail changing the policies and practices that guide police activity (e.g., banning no-knock warrants and chokeholds) and can be seen as working within the current system. Alternatively, calls to dismantle and defund the police often center around reallocating budgets away from traditional law enforcement response and reinvesting in essential social services (e.g., housing, education, and jobs) and community-based public safety initiatives. This latter approach can be seen as working outside the traditional criminal justice system. 

Working Within: Reforming Policy and Practice

As with the long history of police violence, efforts to reform the police date back to the very conception of policing in modern America. Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests reinvigorated calls for reform at the federal, state, and local levels. During this time, public opinion polls, conducted using samples of likely voters from across the United States, through sources like Data for Progress and the Program for Public Consultation, also suggest that there was wide support for police reforms (including but not limited to bans on chokeholds, mandating body-worn cameras, prohibiting racial profiling, and encouraging uniform standards, de-escalation, alternatives to the use of deadly force, a national registry for misconduct, and duty to intervene policies). For instance, 71 percent of survey respondents in a Data for Progress poll either somewhat or strongly supported a federal ban on chokeholds.

Various attempts at reform were made at the federal level, with legislation proposed in Congress, but none of these efforts have had any success thus far. In mid-2020, Democrats introduced the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which covered a wide range of policies and practices regarding police accountability and transparency. It would have included limits on qualified immunity, the creation of a national police misconduct registry, limiting use of force and no-knock warrants, prohibiting racial and religious discrimination, and mandating use of force data collection. This act was reintroduced and passed by the House of Representatives once again in 2021, but stalled in the Senate.

Police are only one part of a system that disproportionately engages Black people; we must interrogate the criminal justice system in its entirety.

Despite a lack of progress at the federal level, largely due to partisan disagreements about the extent of reform needed, efforts at the state and local levels have provided glimpses of hope. Since the summer of 2020, states and municipalities have focused on reforms including but not limited to: strengthening police oversight, ending qualified immunity, limiting low-level traffic stops, tightening use of force standards, requiring a duty to intervene and report misconduct, retraining officers, and implementing behavioral health and crisis response teams. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, since 2020, at least 33 states have enacted some form of legislation to regulate the use of force. Some highlights include: 

  1. California passed comprehensive reform legislation that requires officers to intervene when excessive force is being used by fellow police officers and bans certain restraint techniques. 
  2. Maryland repealed its police bill of rights and now allows civilians to play a role in the police disciplinary process by establishing police accountability boards and administrative charging committees throughout each locality in the state.

Furthermore, a total of 19 states enacted legislation to either change existing standards or create new standards regarding reasons for, and transparency efforts around, officer decertification and certificate suspension. For example, Illinois created a certification review panel with enhanced powers to decertify officers for misconduct.

At the local level, some municipalities and police departments have engaged in reform efforts that mirror efforts at the state level. Many cities, like Washington D.C. and Louisville, have banned certain types of use of force such as: chokeholds, neck restraints, and no-knock warrants. Philadelphia became the first major city where the police have been banned from making low-level traffic stops for minor traffic violations, which has historically been a site for racial disparities. Los Angeles has recently followed suit. In Portland, the city passed legislation to overhaul the existing civilian police review board to ensure wider scopes of authority, including investigatory and subpoena powers and greater transparency.

While these reform efforts may seem like steps in the right direction, there is very little empirical evidence on what reforms will actually improve police experiences for Black individuals and in communities of color at large. Moreover, some advocates also argue that these reforms miss the mark as they fail to address the underlying role of policing in society and the financial structure supporting law enforcement. Finally, despite some successes, there are many states where legislation was introduced but did not pass and even states that have expanded police powers. For instance, Iowa passed legislation last spring that enhanced qualified immunity for law enforcement and increased penalties for protest-related offenses. At the local level, there have been defeats of key ballot measures calling for reform. For instance, in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered, voters rejected a proposal to restructure and overhaul the current police department to replace it with a new vision for public safety. 

Dismantling the System: Defunding the Police

The second big push that came from the BLM protest was the call to dismantle and/or disinvest from the police force. Both BLM and traditional abolitionists have called for a “defunding” movement that would reallocate money traditionally given to police departments to other general social services in the community (such as housing, education, and jobs). After the summer of 2020, many communities across the country saw activists and protestors making calls to “defund the police.” 

Since then, efforts have been made at the federal level to provide increased funding for crime prevention, community-based violence intervention, and social services. However, this has not been predicated on shifting funds away from law enforcement. Similarly, at the local level, most cities did not adopt the defunding movement. Instead, many symbolic actions were taken across the United States, including painting “Black Lives Matter” on busy intersections and cities making Juneteenth a federal holiday. While symbolic actions are important displays of recognition and acknowledgement, many were left wondering if there would be any real shift in reliance on the police. 

Nevertheless, a handful of cities did cut their police budgets in response. Cities from Austin all the way to New York and Los Angeles approved budget cuts that ranged from $150 million to $1 billion. Across the country, these cuts ranged from 1 to 20 percent of total operating costs for police departments. Other examples include:

  1. Baltimore cut $22 million from its police budget in 2020 while signaling that it was the first step in a plan to increase transparency in policing and to move toward less dependency on the police. 
  2. Philadelphia reduced its funding for police by $33 million, which was partly attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. 
  3. Salt Lake City reduced its police budget by pausing $2.8 million, which was put into a holding account. Meanwhile, $2.5 million earmarked for social workers were removed from the police budget.

Public opinion polls in 2021 demonstrated strong support for reallocating funding away from police budgets to drug and mental health service providers and other social services more broadly. Despite the early reallocation of money away from police services in both 2020 and 2021, there has been a stark change in 2022. Financial resources, political rhetoric, and policy action has notably changed as it pertains to policing. Recent data has shown that although some of the largest U.S. cities cut police budgets in 2020 (which can largely be attributed to across-the-board cuts because of COVID-19), aggregate law enforcement spending as a share of general expenditures rose slightly to 13.7 percent from 13.6 percent. When disaggregating the data to exclusively look at Democratic-led cities, the majority of these cities increased police spending for 2021. Relatedly, polls conducted by Pew Research showed that a higher percentage of adults in 2021 (compared to 2020) agreed that funding for police should be increased, which may be at least partially attributed to heightened concerns about increases in violent crime, namely gun violence. Thus, these increases in violence were framed in a way which completely negated their historical context, with a narrative that centered around police not being on the streets and further justified the need for more law enforcement presence.

President Biden embraced this framing in his 2022 State of the Union address, calling for increased police funding. Biden did not mince words when he said, “We should all agree: The answer is not to defund the police. The answer is to FUND the police with the resources and training they need to protect our communities.” His words are indicative of the current ethos of the country. The United States has just about abandoned any notion of divesting or defunding the police. BLM and other groups are continuing, nonetheless, to fight for disinvestment in the police and investment in communities. 

The Persisting Question: When Will Black Lives Matter?

The distinct, yet related, calls for police reform and defunding that were, and continue to be, a response to rampant police violence against Black people have failed to actualize across the United States en masse (despite changes in certain localities). This has led many to wonder whether justice and racial equity can ever really be achieved in our criminal “justice” system. On one end of the spectrum, former officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering George Floyd in April 2021, and, in February 2022, three former Minneapolis officers were found guilty of violating George Floyd’s civil rights. While these verdicts are historic due to the rarity of convictions when prosecuting police officers, some voiced concerns about whether this would truly change policing in America or if it would be seen as a high-profile outlier case. In other words, would the case be seen as indicative of a bad apple within policing or a rotten tree constituted by policing? 

Just the next month, on March 3, 2022 (almost two years after the wrongful death following the botched raid on Breonna Taylor’s home), America witnessed former detective Brett Hankison found not guilty of endangering Breonna Taylor’s neighbors, despite firing multiple gunshots. One key point to note is that he was the only officer on trial (despite the multiple officers present and engaged). Further, Brett was never on trial for killing Breonna Taylor, but rather for shooting through her home and into her neighbor’s apartment. 

We must look at these incidents of police violence and the resulting court verdicts together (along with the many others in the past and, potentially, those to come) and question whether the time for Black lives to matter has come or whether we are we still hoping for tomorrow? Despite the lived reality of many Black people, there is hope even in our midst of despair. We must continue to push for the necessary progress to truly say that America values Black lives, where Black bodies can freely move and live without fear of being overpoliced and Black communities are safe, healthy, and thriving. We need more cities investing in community-based crime prevention that reduces reliance on the criminal justice system as a whole (including improvements in the neighborhood and socioeconomic conditions as well as social service provision); more coordinated response programs designed to intervene in a peaceful manner when necessary; enhanced accountability mechanisms for police officers and departments (e.g., in New York City the police union lost its right to withhold officer disciplinary records from the public and Maryland repealed its police bill of rights); and we need to examine the effectiveness of different approaches to community safety. Even more crucially, police represent only one part of a system that disproportionately engages Black people. As such, we must interrogate the criminal justice system in its entirety. We must question the role that other parts of this massive system play (courts and corrections included) as well as specific actors, including elected and appointed political leaders who influence the agenda on criminal justice (from local mayors to prosecutors to state governors and attorneys general). 

Collectively, these actions represent avenues to change Black people’s experiences in this country. As James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced. We must face this problem head on if we want to create a world where Black bodies can thrive.”

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Andrea M. Headley is an Assistant Professor in the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University and a Visiting Scholar of Race, Policing and Crime at the National Policing Institute. She is a public management, social equity, and criminal justice policy scholar.

James E. Wright II is an Assistant Professor in the Askew School of Public Administration and Policy at Florida State University. He is a public management, public policy, and social justice scholar.

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