When former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee on the neck of George Floyd as he lay handcuffed and dying face down in the street, it seemed an obviously excessive use of force.
Captured on video by a bystander, the searing image of Chauvin’s failure to get off Floyd for more than nine minutes led to widespread angry protests against police brutality and demands for reform in cities across the United States and the world.
Now, nearly a year later, as Chauvin goes on trial for murder and manslaughter, advocates say there have been some gains in improving police accountability since the Black Lives Matter movement, but larger, structural reforms have been elusive.
“There are a lot of misconceptions out there. A lot of people think that neck restraints are already banned, for instance,” said DeRay McKesson, a protestor and co-founder of Campaign Zero, an advocacy group that lobbies for police reforms.
“The push around police department budgets didn’t really do as much as people thought,” McKesson told Al Jazeera.
And, while “use-of-force rule changes at the state level and the city levels look unprecedented … we know, alone it’s not enough”.
The year 2020 was the deadliest yet with 1,127 people killed by police, and 2021 is on pace to match with 238 so far, according to data collected by Campaign Zero. Black people still remain most likely to be targeted by police, accounting for 28 percent of killings while they only make up 13 percent of the population.
Police shot and killed a Black man in a Minneapolis suburb during a traffic stop on Sunday, sparking new protests and prompting the state of Minnesota to mobilise the National Guard. The police chief released body cam video within 24 hours and called the shooting an accident.
‘Transformational’ policy changes elusive
“The rhetoric has really shifted but there hasn’t been very much progress on policy,” said Jake Grumbach, a political science professor at the University of Washington who studies state-level policies and racial politics.
“There are some signs of policy movement but nothing that I would characterize as really transformational,” Grumbach told Al Jazeera.
The state of Kentucky last week became only the third state in the US to enact a law limiting the use of “no knock” police raids of the kind that killed Breonna Taylor in the city of Louisville last year. And the state of Maryland adopted legislation returning control of the Baltimore police department to the city of Baltimore, a move seen likely to lead to community-oriented reforms.
But national police reform legislation in the US Congress is stalled. The Democratic-led US House of Representatives has twice passed legislation titled the “George Floyd Justice in Policing Act”. Senate Republicans have blocked it.
Drafted by the Congressional Black Caucus after Floyd’s death, the bill would ban chokeholds like the one that killed Eric Garner in New York City in 2014.
The US legislation would impose a series of reforms and accountabilities on federal law enforcement and would condition future US funding for state and local agencies on adoption of the same policies.
Since the protests last year, 46 of the 100 largest US cities adopted new policies against the use of chokeholds, strangleholds and pressure positions like the one that killed Floyd, according to data collected by Campaign Zero. Another 13 cities are reviewing their policies and 27 already had bans.
Larger reforms such as shifting funding from police to social services – a step captured in the popular protest slogan ‘Defund the police’ – have been harder to implement.
Austin, the capital of the state of Texas, was the first large US city to attempt major structural reform by moving $150m, or one third of its police budget, to social services and alternative public safety programmes.
But the Republican governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, has lined up Republican support in the Texas legislature to prevent Austin from moving forward with the budget cuts.
Republican politicians in other states such as Georgia, Missouri, Florida and Iowa are taking similar steps to prevent their cities from cutting police funding.
Campaign Zero is working with Maryland, Louisiana and Oregon to scale back state laws that include the “Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights” – rules that can limit accountability for killings and other wrongdoing.
The group is also working with 50 cities and states to help them think through how to ban ‘no knock’ raids like the one that killed Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, “in a way that actually will stop the practice as opposed to just lip service”, McKesson said.
Taylor, an unarmed Black woman, was shot by police serving a narcotics warrant at her home. She had been in bed when the police knocked and she bled to death in the hallway of her own apartment.
Police unions are a major obstacle to activists seeking to strengthen accountability for police who use deadly force. In Minneapolis, the police department withdrew from contract negotiations amid last year’s protests.
In Washington, DC, the city council passed a new rule prohibiting negotiations with the local police union over disciplinary procedures. City officials said it would make it easier to fire officers for misconduct but the DC Police Union filed suit in federal court to block the rule change.
Gregg Pemberton, chairman of the union, in August accused city leaders of responding to demands for reform by discriminating against the union’s 3,600 rank-and-file police officers.
“The Council and Mayor … have made clear that the current climate prevents them from acting in a reasonable and rational manner, instead requiring blatantly arbitrary legislation to preserve their own political survival,” Pemberton said, warning many DC police would seek employment elsewhere as a result.
Indeed, the average rate of departures from the DC force accelerated from 20 a month to nearly 40, Pemberton told the DC council in October.
While a federal court upheld the DC law, it is an outlier nationally. The argument that unions and police officials make, that rules changes to prevent police violence will undermine public safety, is an effective one, McKesson said.
“The police don’t really care about the protests,” he added. “They just withstand the protests, but they are ready and prepared when we’re in these rooms and a lot of legislators are afraid to disagree with the police.”
In Chauvin’s murder trial in Minneapolis, the Minnesota police association is paying for his defence attorney Eric Nelson, who argues the neck-hold he used on Floyd was part of what he had been trained to do.
During jury selection Nelson had screened potential jurors for whether they agreed with the slogan “defund the police”.
“Police departments are now such powerful cartels that politicians actually have a tough time doing anything,” Grumbach said.
The ongoing debate over changes in policing will be a major dynamic in US politics going into the 2022 elections, Grumbach predicted.