As George Floyd gasped for breath under the knee of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, another officer turned to the gathering crowd and said, “This is why you don’t do drugs, kids.” Days later, Chauvin’s attorneys told a judge that prosecutors had no probable cause to charge Chauvin because Floyd tested positive for drugs and had medical conditions. Blaming the victim, a common practice particularly when the victim is Black or Brown, attorneys postulated that Floyd had overdosed and caused his own death. Two separate autopsies would confirm that Chauvin killed Floyd, but only after Chauvin’s lawyers spread the dehumanizing notion that Floyd’s alleged drug use made him unworthy of living.
Breonna Taylor, whose name was chanted with Floyd’s as the protests against police-perpetrated violence swept the country last year, was killed by police during a botched drug raid in March 2020. No drugs were found at the home in Louisville, Kentucky, where Taylor, a Black medical worker and aspiring nurse, was gunned down, but prosecutors argued the plainclothes officers who busted inside were justified in their use of force. A grand jury agreed and charges against the cops were dropped.
Democrats and some civil rights leaders applauded the passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021 in the House this week as an important step toward curbing police violence. However, the suite of policing reforms does not reflect the transformational demands of the movement that erupted into view after police killed Taylor, Floyd, Daniel Prude, Tony McDade, Modesto Reyes, Patrick Lynn Warren and so many others. Activists envision reducing, defunding and ultimately eliminating policing, while redirecting police funding to meet community needs. In contrast, the police reform bill would give police more money in the form of grants that theoretically act as an incentive to adopt modest reforms — if local cops even want the funding. Congress would continue supporting the war on drugs, which looms as one factor behind the deaths of Floyd, Taylor, Reyes and so much of the violence that people of color and particularly Black people face at the hands of police.
Maritza Perez, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that lobbies Congress to abolish the drug war, said the bill passed by the House on Wednesday falls “far short” of the kind of reform and accountability that is needed to end police violence. House Democratic leaders, Perez said, fast-tracked a version of the bill that passed last year before dying in the Senate, rather than listening to concerns raised by racial justice groups and members of ultra-policed communities.
“Last year we raised at various times while this bill was being put together that it didn’t go far enough, and the way that the Democrats are explaining this bill even isn’t accurate,” Perez said in an interview.
The Justice in Policing Act, which faces Republican opposition in the Senate, would prohibit racial profiling by police, but proving racial profiling place is a difficult process. The bill aims to create new training programs for cops and make it easier to hold officers “accountable,” but similar attempts at police reform at the local level have not prevented police-perpetrated violence. With Black people three times as likely to be killed during an encounter with police than whites — and law enforcement’s continued focus on drug enforcement in communities of color — critics say the House bill will not prevent more death.
“The bill continues the misguided logic that more police equals more safety and better protections of human rights,” said Erika Maye, deputy senior director of criminal justice and democracy campaigns at the civil rights group Color Of Change, in a statement.
Standards and training have not been shown to have a profound effect on police-perpetrated violence. Activists argue that policing is inherently violent and racist, and only reducing and ultimately abolishing policing can reduce police violence.
For example, the bill would prohibit federal law enforcement officers from putting people in chokeholds and serving “no-knock warrants,” two policing tactics that are notorious for causing serious harm. However, the bill would not stop local and state police from using chokeholds and no-knock warrants; instead, it uses federal funding as an incentive for local cops to adopt federal standards and training. Besides, Floyd was killed by blunt force trauma and asphyxiation from a knee to the neck, not a chokehold. As Derecka Purnell points out at The Guardian, the Justice in Policing Act would not have saved Floyd’s life. It may not have saved Taylor’s either.
No-knock warrants involve police or a SWAT team barging into private property unannounced, most often to search for drugs inside a home, and are blamed for numerous injuries and deaths. Perez said the Justice in Policing Act does not prohibit “quick-knock raids” that can be just as deadly. During a quick-knock raid, which are also often used to serve drug warrants, officers simply knock before they bust into a home.
In Taylor’s case, police officers told investigators they repeatedly knocked and announced themselves before breaking down the door with a battering ram. Other reports indicate there was no warning at all. Taylor was in bed with her boyfriend, who reportedly thought they were being robbed; he pulled a gun and fired one shot. Police responded with a hail of gunfire. In the wake of Taylor’s death, Louisville banned no-knock warrants and set new guidelines for police raids. Even if Congress passes the Justice in Policing Act, states and localities would be left to pass their own reforms, as a few are already doing.
“A lot of these problematic policing practices, a lot of cases that we hear about where people are killed, are derived [from] drug investigations, or drugs are used as a pretext to question somebody and have that initial interaction,” Perez said.
Democrats say the House bill would “limit” the transfer of military-grade equipment to local police departments, but Perez said the legislation would not end the practice outright. The war on drugs has long been used to justify the militarization of police forces, with heavily armed SWAT teams busting into homes in the middle of the night and deploying smoke bombs and flash grenades. In 2014, a flash grenade critically injured a toddler during a no-knock drug raid in Georgia.
Activists have long called for an end to federal programs that transfer military equipment to local police, especially after the 2014 uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, where military equipment was used against protesters after a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown. Federal programs that transfer military equipment to cops would be curtailed under the House bill, as they were during the Obama administration, but the programs would not be shut down.
“Most often when we say ‘militarized police,’ it’s in the course of a drug investigation,” Perez said.
The most substantive provisions in the Justice in Policing Act are also the most controversial in Congress, and organizers are skeptical that even these would make for real change. The bill would “reform” — but not eliminate — qualified immunity for police officers, which currently protects cops from civil lawsuits and prevents victims from collecting damages. (Meanwhile, many abolitionist activists question whether eliminating qualified immunity will save lives. As Black Lives Matter put it in a tweet, the solution is not to “end qualified immunity so we can sue cops AFTER they kill our babies.”) The bill would also loosen a federal legal standard that often prevents prosecutors from charging police with criminal charges. Democrats want to create a National Police Misconduct Registry meant to prevent cops who are fired for misconduct from being rehired by a different force — if police departments choose to use it.
Cops are notorious for getting off easy, even after they kill people, and mainstream civil rights leaders, such as Rev. Al Sharpton of the National Action Network, say national reforms like the George Floyd Act are necessary for pursuing justice at the local and state level. However, Republicans remain opposed to the qualified immunity proposal and other changes, posing a major hurdle in the Senate, where Democrats must convince 10 Republicans to support the bill or end the filibuster to pass it.
Perez said both Democrats and Republicans are mischaracterizing the bill, with Democrats claiming it goes much further than it actually does, and Republicans falsely claiming it would “defund the police.”
“I really don’t think this bill provides real accountability,” Perez said.
In October 2020, a coalition of racial justice and law enforcement reform groups sent a letter to top Democrats on the House Judiciary committee, alerting them that 50 Black people had died since the Justice in Policing Act was first passed earlier that year. They offered concrete proposals to improve the bill, including removing police officers from all schools, banning quick-knock raids for drug cases, strengthening the misconduct registry and making racial profiling data readily available to the public.
Perez said Democrats ignored these recommendations in favor of a quick political victory and appeasing the police. Police oppose real reforms because they threaten their power on the street, which so often involves racist suspicions about drugs. Under the bill, Congress would continue funding the drug war, rather than shifting those resources toward housing, education, harm reduction and other infrastructure that would strengthen communities, according to Perez.
The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) is pushing its own visionary bill, the BREATHE Act, which would divest federal resources from incarceration and policing and invest in new approaches to community safety that don’t involve legal sanctions and locking people up in jail. For racial justice activists, the only reforms worth fighting for would shrink the criminal legal system, center the protection of Black lives and provide new money to Black communities.
The Justice in Policing Act, on the other hand, provides new money for police.
“Giving hundreds of millions of dollars to police departments for hiring, additional equipment, and training fundamentally ignores community’s calls for public safety that prioritizes housing, health care, and good jobs,” Maye said.
The Justice in Policing Act fails to capture the spirit of the mass movement that took to the streets after Floyd’s death — a movement that demanded an end to policing and the repurposing of resources to defend Black lives and promote public safety by investing in communities. Defunding police would also mean an end to the racist war on drugs, which has empowered and enriched law enforcement since its inception, providing the perfect excuse to target and control communities of color. The war on drugs is a war on people, particularly Black and Brown people. The House Democrats’ proposal would not change that.
“We support drug decriminalization and legalization for that reason,” Perez said. “We want to stop interactions between members of the community and the police, because for vulnerable people — people of color, low-income and no-income people — we know those interactions are often deadly.”