DES MOINES, Iowa – A few days before former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering George Floyd, Iowa’s House of Representatives was debating the legal immunity officers have for their on-the-job actions.
The April 14 floor debate was over a large policing policy bill that included whether to expand the qualified immunity that shields officers from civil penalties.
The mid-April debate over immunity protections for officers has echoed across the country. Colorado, New Mexico, Massachusetts and Connecticut have ended or limited those protections. Iowa, firmly controlled by Republicans, was not preparing to join those states.
Iowa’s House Republicans, saying they want to boost protections for police, fell in line with an argument about officers voiced by Republican state Rep. Jarad Klein.
“I’ll take this as an invitation: If you’re a bad one, get out of our state right now because we’ve got a lot of great ones, and we intend to support them,” Klein said. “And qualified immunity is one of those key components of ensuring the good law enforcement officers are protected and not left out to dry and possibly be sued.”
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Many Democrats in the Iowa House objected.
“Making law enforcement officers immune from clearly egregious misconduct is going to further undermine public trust in law enforcement just at the time when we need to rebuild that trust,” Rep. Christina Bohannan, a Democrat, said during debate.
More complicated than a partisan divide
Nationally, the split between many Democrats and Republicans on policing changes is also wide. But it is not as simple as saying Democrats are moving fast to limit protections while Republicans are protecting the old guard and what activists call a failed policing structure.
“This is just one of those areas where you really can’t draw partisan lines between the states because the political landscapes are so different — there are 50 states, and there are 50 different political conversations going on around these issues,” said Amber Widgery, program principal on criminal justice at the National Conference of State Legislatures. “You have 50 states doing 50 things.”
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From the deep South — South Carolina, Florida and Alabama, for instance — to Oklahoma, Illinois, Arkansas, South Dakota and along both coasts, Floyd’s killing and Chauvin’s murder conviction have prompted states to open their policy books and consider or make changes to the structure of policing in the United States.
Still, no state, not even those in Democratic hands, has gone as far as many activists and civil rights leaders want them to go in reimagining policing in America.
Many states, including Iowa, have banned chokeholds, and some have beefed up use-of-force training and reporting requirements when force is used. Some have stripped officers of certain protections and changed no-knock warrant policies or set up mechanisms to weed out bad applicants and wayward current officers.
“They’re not going far enough,” said Kennedy-Ezra Kastle, spokeswoman for the Minnesota group Black Visions, which has pushed for “defunding police.”
Kastle and her group support dismantling traditional policing and replacing it with peace — not police — officers who are from the community and know the Black community, as well as training first responders in mental health and on the cultures they patrol.
As it is, she said, officers “eventually become ticking time bombs. And that is not on the community to really educate these police officers on cultural competence, and how to correctly deal with folks who are having mental health crisis. So the only path forward is to create something entirely new, that serves the community.”
States adopt a mixed bag of policy changes
States are adopting a variety of changes.
In addition to Minnesota, where Floyd was killed last year and afterward was the center of protests and rioting, Colorado was quick to act — just weeks after Floyd’s death.
Officials there adopted new requirements related to body cameras, new policies to revoke certification of officers post-conviction and new reporting requirements on the use of force by police. And Illinois became the first state in the nation to get rid of cash bail — something advocates had long viewed as an unfair burden on poorer and Black communities.
Iowa’s policy considerations are more of a mixed bag, Widgery said. The state has taken steps to change policing — banning most chokeholds, requiring yearly de-escalation and implicit bias training and allowing the state’s attorney general to investigate deaths caused by an officer — while also moving to protect police officers.
Iowa Republicans sidelined efforts to ban racial profiling by officers while advancing penalties for several protest-related offenses. Other policing-related provisions, such as increased penalties for assaulting officers and other expanded benefits and protections for police, are currently under negotiation between House and Senate Republicans.
But the overall picture for states is one of urgency and action after the world repeatedly watched videos of Floyd dying under Chauvin’s knee, Widgery said.
“Accountability is the headline here,” she said, adding that “You have Maryland, with their repeal of the law enforcement officer Bill of Rights. And then in Utah and Kentucky, that means the decertification of officers who have been found to have engaged in misconduct. States like South Dakota, West Virginia and a handful of other states, they’re sort of taking initial steps to retrain or add training for officers related to use of force.”
In Kentucky, where the Legislature is Republican-held and the governor is a Democrat, the state moved to make what Widgery called “really big, bold changes.”
In addition to bolstering the reasons for the decertification of officers, that state made their no-knock warrant policy stricter — a practice that drew heavy scrutiny after the death of Breonna Taylor in a police raid in Louisville. Firefighters can also now respond to certain emergencies while armed officers would hold off on those calls, depending on local policies.
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In Ohio, House Republicans plan to reintroduce a police revamp package sponsored by two former law enforcement officers in the coming weeks. The legislation is expected to include a new police professional licensing board and database of all use of force and officer disciplinary reports. It has the support of Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican.
“If this bill is passed, it’ll put Ohio at the forefront. We will be able to say, ‘Look, we have gotten serious about this.’ We respect our police, a great majority of police do a wonderful job. We want to make sure that we have a uniformity in policing, and we make it as professional as we can,” DeWine said.
Democrats would like to see more changes, but those are highly unlikely to pass given that Republicans have supermajorities in both chambers.
And in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, signed into law strict “anti-riot” legislation, Floyd’s death highlighted a rift between Republicans and Democrats on issues of race and policing. Still, lawmakers came together to approve changes with overwhelming bipartisan support.
In that state, Black Democratic lawmakers worked with conservative Republicans in the House to craft legislation that law enforcement organizations, advocacy groups and lawmakers from both parties favored. The legislation now goes to DeSantis’ desk. The governor hasn’t publicly expressed an opinion on it.
The legislation doesn’t reimagine how law enforcement dollars are spent, end qualified immunity or standardize police body camera policies — all ideas advanced over the last year. Still, those who advocate for police policy overhaul called it a good start.
As for Arizona, four major bills have made it to, or out of, the state Legislature. Among them is a bill that requires individuals wanting to serve on civilian review boards to complete 80 hours of Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board classes or a community college police academy.
But change advocates say the cost and time commitment for that training would shut out the communities most affected by police misconduct.
Also under consideration by Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, is a measure passed by both state chambers requiring at least two-thirds of those investigating police misconduct on civilian review boards to be sworn officers from the same department as the officer being investigated.
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Changes stall in some Democratic states
Not all states run by Democrats are answering every demand from activists and rights groups.
In New York, “the movement for police accountability has secured historic wins at the state level,” said Monifa Bandele, a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform.
The state passed the Safer NY Act last year, which boosted the power of the state’s special prosecutor’s office to investigate police-involved shootings and deaths in police custody and repealed a police secrecy law. But there were hurdles along the way, including Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order last year to require local towns and cities to submit police overhaul plans to the state. This, said Bandele, served “to uphold the status quo.”
“The way to reduce police violence and increase accountability,” she said, “is to reduce the size, scope, power, and budgets of police departments across the country. To do this, people at all levels of government, in all states, should be doing everything they can to reduce the footprint of policing.”
Federal changes may be coming; if so, states would likely fall in line
At the federal level, President Joe Biden in his first speech to Congress on April 28 urged both chambers to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which aims to bolster police accountability and ban certain maneuvers that have led to the deaths of Black Americans.
“Let’s get it done next month, by the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death,” Biden said. Floyd died on May 25, 2020.
To a bipartisan standing ovation, Biden said he believes the vast majority of law enforcement officials are good people who “serve their communities honorably,” but said systemic racism in the criminal justice system needs to be addressed.
He recalled speaking with Floyd’s 7-year-old daughter, Gianna, after his death.
“As I knelt down to talk to her so we could talk eye to eye, she said to me, ‘Daddy changed the world,’ ” he said. “After the conviction of George Floyd’s murderer, we can see how right she was — if — if we have the courage to act.”
Congressional Republicans, who have said they are reluctant to end qualified immunity, picked South Carolina’s Tim Scott, the only Republican member of the U.S. Senate who is Black, to give the GOP’s rebuttal of Biden’s address.
Taking aim at Democrats, Scott said the country is not racist, and that “my friends across the aisle seemed to want the issue (of changing U.S. police policy) more than they wanted a solution.” He was talking about resistance he said he received from Democrats over legislation he had proposed in 2015 on body cameras for police and other police policy changes last year after Taylor’s death.
Scott is in discussions on an apparent compromise police overhaul bill with New Jersey Democratic U.S. Sen. Cory Booker and U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, a Democrat from California.
“I’m still working,” Scott said. “I’m hopeful that this will be different.”
Should the George Floyd Act become law, most states are expected to fall in line with federal changes, according to Jay Schweikert, a research fellow in the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice.
“You should expect to see states follow all of the provisions of whatever sort of policing reform bill end up happening,” Schweikert said. “In general, both the Constitution and federal law are going to set a floor, though states are always free to protect rights, even more so than they’re required to under federal law.”
Despite some current action at the state level, more needs to be done, according to American Civil Liberties Union advocates.
“With each passing day and each additional person the police kill, we’re seeing more people outraged, grieving the relentless loss of life, and demanding change,” said Emma Anderson, senior staff attorney at the ALCU’s national Criminal Law Reform Project. “More people coming to the table is encouraging and a necessary step on the long path we have to travel to get to justice. But it is barely the beginning.”
Anderson said it’s a time for bold action.
“Policing and police policies at every level of government need to be radically transformed,” she said. “If ever there was a time to think and act big, it’s now — before another person dies.”
Contributing: John Kennedy, USA TODAY Network-Florida Capital Bureau; Maria Polletta, the Arizona Republic; and Jackie Borchardt , USA TODAY Network-Ohio.
Follow Eric Ferkenhoff and Ian Richardson on Twitter: @ericferk and @DMRIanR.