How the U.S. could reform police in response to protests against brutality and racism

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Repeated police killings of black Americans have sparked the widest push for law enforcement reform in years.

The nationwide movement fueled by George Floyd’s death last month has already kick-started change in cities and states. The coming months will help to determine just how far officials go in reshaping departments — and whether Congress will join state and local lawmakers in taking steps to overhaul policing.

Policymakers across the country have targeted several major areas in their reform discussions, including:

Ensuring more transparency about police use of force and disciplinary records
Banning chokeholds
Making it easier to sue or prosecute officers who commit abuses
Activists and some Democratic officials want to reimagine the system to root out structural racism, calling to redirect chunks of police funding to social services or even replace whole departments with a new public safety system.

As municipalities start to respond to sustained demonstrations against police brutality — including violence against protesters — significant reform at the national level is far from assured. Democrats and Republicans who want to make policing changes will have to contend with a president often reluctant to criticize officers or excessive use of force.

Reform and defund efforts take shape in cities

Certain U.S. cities have moved to either remake or cut money from their police departments as activists argue incremental changes have failed. While officials across the country have identified similar problems with the justice system, early actions indicate state and local governments could take drastically different paths as they overhaul law enforcement.

In Minneapolis, where Floyd died after an officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, most of the city council told demonstrators they wanted to begin the process of dismantling the city’s police department amid longstanding public distrust. It will likely take Minneapolis years to decide how it would replace the police force.

Other cities have taken the step of pledging to cut police funding as they face pressure for over-policing communities of color while neglecting key programs. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said he would cut an unspecified sum from the country’s largest police force and redirect it to youth and social services.

But de Blasio has so far not provided specific plans, which has rankled activists frustrated by the mayor’s handling of police violence and reform in recent years. Communities United for Police Reform, a coalition of organizations pushing to end discriminatory policies by the NYPD, wants the city to cut the department’s $6 billion annual budget by $1 billion in fiscal year 2021 by targeting areas such as new hiring and counterterrorism.

“It’s very clear that in a pandemic New Yorkers need social services more than policing,” said Anthonine Pierre, deputy director of the Brooklyn Movement Center, one of the organizations that is part of Communities United for Police Reform. She added that “times have shifted and the need for policing has shifted,” especially after the coronavirus devastated the city.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti also announced plans to put $250 million into health care and youth jobs programs while cutting as much as $150 million from the city’s police budget.

Many who want to reform a flawed justice system have warned against large-scale police budget cuts. “Indiscriminate cuts” that do not target specific problems in a police department budget “may actually undercut efforts” to improve law enforcement, said Taryn Merkl, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law and a former federal prosecutor.

As New York City grapples with how to reshape its police department, a flurry of activity in the state legislature this week could foreshadow changes around the country. State lawmakers voted this week to repeal a law known as 50-a, which barred the release of police disciplinary records.

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