In the year since Louisville police killed Breonna Taylor in an overnight drug raid, the Democratic-led US House of Representatives has passed a bill overhauling policing, twice.
President Joe Biden took office in a city protected by a standing army two weeks after a pro-Trump mob overran the US Capitol. Scientists developed vaccines against a new virus, the seriousness of which the country was only beginning to grapple with at the time of Taylor’s death.
Politicians across the country adopted the message of reform after a week of protests, unrest and looting in cities across the country, seizing on a movement led by activists for years. The wide-scale unrest in late May and early June was prompted by the death of George Floyd after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck during an arrest. His death brought renewed attention to Taylor’s fatal shooting.
“It was literally the largest protest movement, the biggest protest movement in the history of the United States, that really strongly indicated that we the people don’t find the use of force reasonable,” said Christy Lopez, a professor at Georgetown who was a deputy chief in the civil rights division at the US Department of Justice for seven years.
Despite the House passage of police reform legislation – first last summer and again this month – the bill, named after Floyd, has not passed the Senate. The legislation would ban chokeholds and makes it easier to pursue police misconduct claims.
Sweeping reform over the last year has largely been elusive. Congress is limited in what it can impose on local police departments, even if it found the political will. Federal legislators were unable to agree on change last summer, when attention was greatest and calls for reform the loudest.
A loud chorus calls for change
Taylor died on March 13, 2020, as states across the country were asking residents to comply with stay-at-home orders, shutting down businesses and discouraging travel.
Most national media didn’t devote significant time to her story for two months, until after attorneys for her family spoke publicly May 11. Floyd died two weeks after Taylor’s death gained national attention.
Video of Floyd’s arrest and death surfaced not long later, leading to a week of demonstrations across the country, with other occasionally violent protests popping up throughout the summer in response to new incidents of questionable use of force by police officers.
Floyd’s death and subsequent calls for change also brought renewed focus on Taylor’s death, and one officer who fired into her apartment was fired in late June. The attention on police led to calls to overhaul policing, from an outright abolition of police departments to changing their responsibilities or the laws that they’re tasked with enforcing.
The calls to abolish, defund, or overhaul policing came as most major American cities saw historic increases in homicides. Calls to divorce police from calls of people having mental health crises came as Covid-19 swept through the country, exacerbating financial problems in cities which saw tax revenues decline as demand for social and health services grew exponentially.
Congress heard, voted on, but ultimately failed to pass the bill overhauling policing introduced in the weeks after Floyd’s death. Democrats in the House of Representatives again passed the bill in early March, this time with Biden in the White House and Democrats in control of the House and Senate, but the margin of Democratic control in the Senate is narrow.
In the Taylor case, two other officers involved in the raid leading to Taylor’s death were fired in December. None of the officers were charged in her death, though the first officer fired faced charges in connection with the raid.
In the Floyd case, the officer who knelt on his neck is set to go on trial, with jury selection set to begin on Monday.
Biden’s nominee for attorney general, Merrick Garland, will likely be confirmed by the Senate this week. Garland has promised to emphasize professionalism and the rule of law across the Justice Department.
But even with more favorable conditions, there is no easy path to national reform.
“You know, we can call for all kinds of reforms and we can even come up with good ideas, but implementing the reform is a whole different ball game,” said Sue Rahr, executive director of Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission. Her agency trains officers across Washington state, including training aimed at reducing the likelihood of officers using force.
“(Reform) can’t be done independently by police departments. It requires the entire government to take a role in supporting that reform.”
‘Reform takes time’
The “defund the police” movement that had been simmering for years in cities across the country grew after the deaths of Floyd and Taylor. Some protesters have argued for outright abolition of police forces while others have called for shifting of funds from police to other social service agencies.
As the defund movement grew, Republican politicians used it to paint Democratic politicians as supporting the sometimes-violent protests across the country. After wide-scale unrest in late May and early June, Biden said he did not support defunding police and instead called for more money for training and non-police responses to mental health emergencies.
And during a meeting in Georgia, Biden told leaders of seven civil rights organizations that the topic of police reform should be avoided before the Georgia runoff elections because Republicans have seized on the “defund the police” movement to paint Democrats as radical and anti-police.
“They’ve already labeled us as being ‘defund the police’ anything we put forward in terms of the organizational structure to change policing,” Biden said. “That’s how they beat the living hell out of us across the country, saying that we’re talking about defunding the police. We’re not. We’re talking about holding them accountable. We’re talking about giving them money to do the right things.”
Democratic candidates won both runoff elections, which resulted in control of the Senate switching from Republicans to Democrats.
Biden promised civil rights leaders structural changes to policing and said he wanted mental health clinicians available on 911 calls and spending money to help police work “with less force and more understanding.”
But Biden’s public proposals do not speak to the structural changes he mentioned, and it’s not clear how he’ll use the Justice Department or other federal agencies to influence the conduct and governance of 18,000 law enforcement agencies.
Moreover, Biden’s proposals released as part of his transition plan lack a broad reimagining of policing that protesters, activists and the most liberal members of the Democratic Party have demanded, consistent with how he and campaign surrogates have framed him as a centrist.
Democratic congressional aides caution that the narrow margins in both chambers will make passing any legislation difficult, and Biden might be able to accomplish more through executive orders than Congress. Even with Democrats controlling both chambers and a Democrat in the White House, it’s possible they won’t be able to enact a bill many of them championed.
Absent federal leadership, cities and states have moved on their own in the name of reform. More than two dozen states have enacted laws changing the way police work, from banning neck holds that restrict either airflow or blood