After weeks of protests, significant police reform seems unlikely

What started as local outrage in response to George Floyd’s death after an encounter with Minneapolis police officers soon spread across the country.

From coast to coast, protesters chanting “Black lives matter” and “without justice, without peace” joined hundreds of mostly peaceful protests, some risking their own safety. They found tear gas near the White House, allegedly assaulted by police in New York City and pushed to the pavement by tactical teams in Buffalo.

Despite personal risk, their voices were heard by citizens and politicians alike, as protesters sparked a protest movement unlike anything the country has seen since the 1960s.

But it could all have been for nothing.

Party politics seems to have derailed any significant reform in the short term.

Failure at the epicenter

In Minnesota, Floyd’s death, caught on camera by a passerby when a white police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck until he passed out, sparked a reform movement. Democratic Governor Tim Walz responded by calling a special session of the state legislature to address emergency police reform measures.

Walz said the reform measures would be aimed at police violence, grants for rebuilding local infrastructure, accountability and transparency.

But lawmakers had little to show for their efforts. Partisan entrenchment ruled the day, as the Republican-controlled Senate and the Democrat-led House faced off on nearly two dozen police reform measures.

House Democrats’ efforts to end warrior-type training for officers, instill residency requirements for police officers, ban chokes, and institute voting rights for criminals were halted when Senate Republicans responded with stricter reforms.

Despite widespread calls for reform, the special legislative session came up empty-handed.

“The people of Minnesota should certainly be deeply disappointed,” said Walz, visibly upset. “This is a failure to move things, a failure to commit. There seems to be a tendency in the legislative bodies to blame everyone else.”

In Minneapolis, where the city council continues to tackle police reform, the grand visions for change seem to lack detail and are far from being promulgated any time soon.

“We are committed to dismantling the police as we know it in the city of Minneapolis and rebuilding with our community, a new model of public safety that actually keeps our communities safe,” Lisa Bender, chairwoman of the city council, told me. month on CNN’s “Newsroom”
On Friday, the city council voted unanimously to replace the Minneapolis police department with a new entity focused on “community safety and violence prevention.” However, the measure still requires additional input from other city leaders and, ultimately, from voters in November.

A federal failure

Minnesota lawmakers were not alone in their failure to overcome partisan politics and pass immediate and meaningful legislation.

In the United States Senate last week, the House Democratic minority successfully blocked Republican Party police reform legislation they deemed inadequate. Democrats sought provisions to ban the use of strangleholds by police departments, which some cities in the country have unilaterally adopted. They also wanted provisions to review qualified immunity, a legal mechanism that largely protects police officers from civil suits.
“The bill (GOP) is a half-hearted bill that doesn’t do what we should do, which is honest police reform,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii.

In the House, Democrats approved their own version of the radical police reform on Thursday. The measure requires limiting qualified immunity for police officers, prohibiting racial profiling, and prohibiting strangling arrests.

Despite passage of the bill in a largely partisan vote, the Senate is not expected to consider it, and President Donald Trump is unlikely to endorse the Democratic legislation championed by Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi.

‘Promotion’ over ‘compliance’

For its part, the White House attempted to play a leading role in the national police debate, but an executive order signed by Trump earlier this month has been criticized by his opponents, such as Senator Kamala Harris of California, as a showcase that it encourages reforms but comes with no apparent enforcement mechanisms.
The President’s executive order requires the prohibition of suffocation by law enforcement officers, for example, but makes an exception for “those situations in which the law allows the use of lethal force.”

Defenders wishing to eliminate the technique took full possession of this loophole, allowing an officer to use a strangler if they fear his life is in danger.

“All police who use strangulation claim that their lives were threatened,” wrote Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist, after Trump announced his executive order.

The issue of the choke ban will remain controversial. Some police experts argue that in a deadly situation where an officer is fighting for his life, anything goes.

While Trump’s order allegedly targets officers who “abuse” his authority, the president himself has called for the use of excessive force against detainees.

Upon taking office, Trump praised the aggressive tactics of immigration officials and suggested that police should not protect the heads of handcuffed suspects who are placed in the back of a car.

“When you see these thugs thrown into the back of a rice cart. You see them thrown hard. I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice,'” Trump said applauding as he addressed a crowd of policemen in State of New York.
His comments were met with contempt by various law enforcement agencies.

‘If we don’t get it now, we never will’

Despite calls by criminal justice reform activists for immediate changes to surveillance in the United States, there are some groups that seem content to buy time.

Last Monday Bob Kroll, president of the Minneapolis Police Union, told me he had not read all of the bills that were making their way through the state legislature. But he cautioned against rushing through police reforms.

In remarks that seemed deaf to Floyd’s pleas to the suffocating officer, Kroll said of efforts to accelerate police reform: “Everyone must breathe.”

While the Minneapolis police union calls for more time, criminal justice advocates say lives are still in danger with each passing day without new restrictions on officers.

At a recent rally outside the Minnesota governor’s mansion, Del Shea Perry, Hardel Sherrel’s mother, told me Her son had died in 2018 under suspicious circumstances while in jail after being arrested for domestic violence.

Perry said that she and other families have been desperately trying to get the attention of elected leaders and have them take concrete steps to eliminate bad police. Perry said she will continue her efforts until they are successful.

“I didn’t sign up for this,” said Perry. “I am an evangelist, not an activist. But I have been pushed into an activist role.”

When asked how long he will continue to be a public face for police reform, Perry said, “Until we get justice.” Taking advantage of this moment of unprecedented national protest against police violence, he added: “If we don’t understand it now, we will never succeed.”

CNN’s Aaron Cooper, Steve Almasy, Ray Sanchez, Clare Foran, Manu Raju, Lauren Fox, Ted Barrett and Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.