A year after George Floyd’s death, seeking a new direction for policing

The newest members of the New York City Police Department (NYPD) attend their police academy graduation ceremony on March 30, 2017 in New York City.

The newest members of the New York City Police Department (NYPD) attend their police academy graduation ceremony on March 30, 2017 in New York City. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

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May 22, 2021

Determined to change policing in Texas’ capital city, the Austin City Council last August voted to cut one-third of its police budget to fund mental health programs, a hotel for homeless people and other alternative public safety measures.

Only a year earlier, the council had resoundingly rejected a proposal to divert a tiny fraction of that spending.

Then came the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which radically expanded the ideas Americans are willing to contemplate to transform policing.

“It’s clear that millions of people marching in unison and calling for change really pushed elected officials to make more transformative change,” said Greg Casar, the Austin City Council member who proposed the cuts. “My office alone received about 20,000 calls and e-mails from Austinites in the week where protests and marches were most heightened in Austin asking for change to the budget.”

As the anniversary of Floyd’s death approaches Tuesday, its political reverberations have been felt all over the nation. Elected officials, primarily in large, left-leaning cities, dropped the slow-burn blueprint for police reform they’d subscribed to for years — a hallmark of the latter Obama administration years — in exchange for more radical and fast-acting proposals. Minnesota and California, along with dozens of police departments, have passed rules limiting the use of chokeholds by police.

While some cities are cutting back their police forces, others are hoping to increase their ranks. Atlanta boosted its police budget and gave officers earlier retention bonuses as it tries to build up its ranks to roughly 2,000 officers. The city also handed down a series of policy changes and strengthened its civilian oversight.

Suddenly infamous for an act of police brutality and racism, Minneapolis has become a testing ground for new approaches to policing and public safety. A dramatic increase in violent crime injected a new tension into the city’s heated debate about how to build a better safety system.

The fight over the future of the Minneapolis Police Department is drawing national attention and donations as the November election approaches and residents prepare to cast their votes.
“This is going to be, when we look back at this, a watershed moment,” said Brandon Davis, assistant professor of law and society at the University of Kansas. “I think this is going to be, in the history books, an incident and a time that really was a catalyst for change. However, the people in power have to see it through.”

Will momentum last?

This isn’t the first time politicians have promised to fix the system after the brutality against a Black man by police prompted a racial reckoning.

Thirty years ago, video of Los Angeles officers beating Rodney King in the street touched off nationwide protests and riots over police brutality. It also spurred the federal government to take on greater oversight of local law enforcement. The Justice Department has since launched over 70 civil rights investigations into patterns and practices of unconstitutional policing.

In 2014, after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., the Obama administration created the Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The commission published a report that was supposed to serve as a playbook for cities to rebuild community trust with police.

The failures of those past initiatives could presage a similar loss of momentum after Floyd, said Michelle Phelps, sociology professor at the University of Minnesota, who studies policing.

“It’s a complicated moment,” said Phelps. “Yes, there is more attention to this issue. … But there is tremendous resistance as well — from lots of different directions.”

One marked change that already separates the post-Floyd reform movement: The idea of defunding — or entirely replacing — police has entered the mainstream.

“You’re hearing lots more people consider, ‘Well, what if we just reduce the footprint of police?’ ” Phelps said. “ ‘Never mind trying to do policing better — what if we did less policing?’ And that’s an idea that I think has become radically more politically palatable, particularly from left-leaning folks.”

More than a dozen major cities, from Los Angeles to Denver and New York City, have moved money out of the police budgets over the past year. At least two dozen cities have cut law enforcement spending by removing officers from schools. Cities like Austin and Minneapolis are pushing it even further, by proposing how to reimagine policing as it has existed for the past century.

In Minneapolis, the rhetoric has shifted starkly since the last election cycle.

In 2017, nine candidates for mayor and City Council answered “yes” to a question in a voter guide asking whether they could envision a Minneapolis without police. One of them, Council President Lisa Bender, did so with a caveat that such an ideal was purely aspirational so far.
Those who said yes faced rebukes from downtown business owners; some candidates likely paid for it on Election Day.

In the weeks after Floyd’s killing, refusing to commit to abolishing the Police Department was enough to get Mayor Jacob Frey shouted down by throngs of protesters who gathered in front of his apartment building. Videos of the crowd chanting “shame” as Frey walked away made international news.

As they head into the November election, almost every candidate is now speaking about trying to build a public safety system that doesn’t rely solely on police.

Atlanta boosts spending

One thousand miles south, in Atlanta, Floyd’s death also spurred calls for changes to policing. Weeks later, the city was rocked by its own death at the hands of police: the shooting of Rayshard Brooks after police responded to a call that he was asleep in the drive-through lane at a fast-food restaurant.

Some activists in the city called on local officials to defund the police. Amid the protests, another request, boosted by a local rapper, took hold too: one for more accountability.

In the budgeting cycles since those two high-profile deaths, Atlanta police officials have boosted funding for police by roughly $10 million, or about 4.5%. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has proposed another increase for the coming year.

While Atlanta tries to enact plans to increase police staffing, the city has also implemented policy changes. That’s a similar combination pursued by some other major cities, such as Houston, Tampa, Fla., and Fresno, Calif.

“We saw cities taking various measures, some small, some a little larger scale to kind of adjust their thinking around public safety and policing,” said Kirby Gaherty, program manager for justice reform at the National League of Cities. “I think even in places where it seems as if they’re not doing all that much different and maybe increasing police, there are at least some internal efforts around use of force.”

Atlanta also increased funding and authority for its Citizen Review Board. Officials are working to hire a data analyst, adding younger members to their board and boosting outreach in hopes of building confidence in the city’s ability to hold officers accountable for misconduct.

“I think that’s the tricky part: How can we ensure that people are held accountable for the work that they do for the public?” said Lee Reid, the board’s executive director. “If you don’t address that problem, no matter what mechanism you put in place, there’s going to be challenges to it.”

Tracking use of force

For those who believe major police reform is crucial to America moving forward, there is little consensus on how to accomplish that goal.

Davis, of the University of Kansas, said changes must come at a federal level to set a new standard of conduct for all police officers, and not be subjected to contract debates with law enforcement unions across America. To do so, the government must maintain a centralized database of police shootings and other uses of force across all states, which currently doesn’t exist, he said.

“Until we get that bigger picture from the data, we’ll never be able to address it with training, because we don’t know what the hell is going on,” Davis said.

Philip K. Howard, founder of nonprofit Common Good, said he’s worried that reforms passed over the last year amount to “radical Band-Aids.” He said past movements, including the Obama-era blueprint, failed because they lacked enforcement mechanisms.

“You can’t have a healthy organization when people can act with impunity — when they can keep their knee on the neck of someone for nine minutes,” he said.

This would likely mean taking on police unions, said Howard, something no cities have successfully accomplished.

In Minneapolis, politicians differ widely on what to do next. Some want to increase spending on police, arguing an increase in violent crime and an officer shortage have already stretched the department, while building out other safety programs.

Others argue that misses the point: that the goal is to create a new system that relies less on armed agents of law enforcement.

Arguments about the Police Department’s future are becoming increasingly volatile as the November elections for mayor and City Council approach. Some elected leaders who vowed to work together after Floyd’s death now acknowledge they rarely speak outside of public forums.
“I’m a bit disappointed, frankly, by some of the elected officials who say they support transforming public safety,” said Bender.

Bender, together with Council Members Phillipe Cunningham and Steve Fletcher, presented a plan last fall that called for trimming the mayor’s proposed police budget and using the money to boost violence prevention and mental health programs, among other efforts. While much of the plan ultimately passed, Frey and his allies wanted to use other funding to pay for new programs.

“Let’s get into the whole defund-abolish thing,” Frey said in a recent interview. “If I was the mayor of another city, with a different size police force, with a different per capita ratio than we have, I very well may have a dramatically different position.”

The biggest decision on policing could fall to voters this November — when they might decide whether Minneapolis should nix its requirement to keep a police department. In its place, the city would create a public safety department — and shift the power dynamics in City Hall, giving council more sway over officers.

Local activists are split on the measure — with some calling it crucial to enacting sweeping changes and others arguing it amounts to little more than a name change.

In a little less than six months, Minneapolis will likely learn whose vision prevails. On an afternoon late last month, activists with the new political committee Yes 4 Minneapolis carried cardboard boxes containing thousands of signatures into the marbled hallways of City Hall.

Their goal: asking voters to decide the future of the Minneapolis Police Department.

This story is part of a collaboration with the Star Tribune through FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Andy Mannix, Reporter, Star Tribune




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