This week marked two years since the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
Floyd’s death reignited a movement for civil rights and calls for police to be held accountable. Since then, several states, including Minnesota and Illinois, have passed police reform legislation. This week, President Joe Biden signed an executive order as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act stalls in the Senate.
The order takes elements of the Justice in Policing Act, including banning federal law enforcement officers from using chokeholds unless deadly force is authorized, and requiring officers to intervene in cases of excessive force. It also mandates the creation of a new national database of police misconduct to be used by all federal law enforcement agencies and local officers who join federal task forces.
“We’re happy that President Biden is doing what he can to take action. Unfortunately, no, it is not enough. What we really need is for Congress to be legislating to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, and to pass laws that would end qualified immunity and that allowed the police to basically act with impunity in these matters,” said Marie Ndiaye, deputy director of the Justice Project at the Advancement Project, a national civil rights organization.
Activists say they appreciate the president’s executive order and understand his limitations, but say real change has to happen at the local level.
“At the end of the day, it’s important for the president to speak out, that is historic, but unless something is done on the local level to influence local police departments, that’s where all the crimes are taking place by police against community members, until we actually focus on that and address that there can’t be any real change that you can really feel,” said Todd Belcore, co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit Social Change.
As Biden issued his executive order on policing, he called on Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. One element in the bill that’s been a point of contention between Republicans and Democrats is limiting qualified immunity as a defense for officers facing civil lawsuits.
“I think it’s important to note that qualified immunity is not something that has worked its way through any legislature, has not gone through Congress. This was a decision by the Supreme Court in 1967. The qualified immunity is a doctrine that is used to shield government officials, in this case, particularly police officers from legal liability,” said Anthony Driver of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression.
Ndiaye agrees and says ending qualified immunity is essential to real police reform, and that’s something the president can’t do.
“Congress, one of the most important things they can do is that they can legislate to end qualified immunity,” said Ndiaye. “It is a doctrine that was given by our courts, and so if Congress doesn't like that law, they can go ahead and change it, it is not set in stone and it is something that is monumental and is necessary if we're going to really talk about police accountability and holding police to standards that they should be held to and that the rest of us are held to.”
Activists also say transforming policing and public safety is more than just enacting legislation.
“In addition to changing the laws to make sure there is transparent accountability, we also ask that people occupy the police force. Imagine what it would be like if the very activists who are protesting were also the ones applying to become part of police or to formulate alternatives to policing that could more effectively meet out the concerns that community members have as related to public safety,” said Belcore. “That’s where the real peace comes in, that’s where the real trust comes in.”
Attorney Ben Crump released a statement on behalf of the Floyd Family that states in part, “We extend our gratitude to President Biden for using the power of his office to impose meaningful federal police reform through an executive order. While this action does not have the long-term impact that we had hoped for with the passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, it does represent incremental progress, and we need to commit ourselves to making progress every day because the safety of our children is worth the fight.”