A year after the nationwide protests, some signs of progress — but police are still killing people

Advocates say police reform is starting to work — but will the nationwide murder spike send us backward?

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published May 28, 2021 6:30AM (EDT)

United States Park Police pushes back protestors near the White House on June 1, 2020 as demonstrations against George Floyd's death continue. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)
United States Park Police pushes back protestors near the White House on June 1, 2020 as demonstrations against George Floyd's death continue. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)

George Floyd's death at the hands of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin sparked an unprecedented summer of protests that drew tens of millions of demonstrators, along with bipartisan declarations that the killing would result in a massive shift in American policing. But one year later, police are killing people at the same rate as before and a nationwide homicide spike amid the coronavirus pandemic has renewed tough-on-crime rhetoric that could undermine any momentum racial justice activists have built since the protest wave.

At least 1,061 people have been killed by police since May 26, 2020, the day after Floyd's death, according to the research and advocacy group Mapping Police Violence. That number is virtually unchanged, in terms of an annual average, since the group began tracking police killings nearly a decade ago.

"We haven't seen a reduction in killings by police going all the way back to 2013 — as far back as the database goes," Samuel Sinyangwe, the co-founder of Mapping Police Violence, said in an interview with Salon. "It's been a fairly constant rate of police violence year over year. Every single year in our database about 1,100 people are killed by police, and there have been about that many people since George Floyd was murdered."

Police have already killed 414 people in the first five months of 2021, according to the data. There have only been six days this year where police in the U.S. did not kill someone.

The rate of police killings in Minnesota has actually increased, from 10 deaths per million residents to 13 per million since Floyd's death, according to the data. While the use of police force in Minneapolis plummeted for several weeks while the protests raged last summer, use of force by the Minneapolis Police Department has skyrocketed since.

Numerous state legislatures responded to the protests by advancing various police reform measures, but it is too soon to see the results.

"It's only been a year and it's been a quite unusual year," Tracie Keesee, a longtime former police officer and co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity, said in an interview with Salon. "Across the country you're seeing different types of ordinances, legislation and policy changes. You're going to have to give those an opportunity to get implemented and rolled out and eventually [have] data collected on it and tracked."

Sinyangwe agreed that one year of data is not enough to make conclusive determinations but said, "There are places that seem to be making process."

Some large cities have seen reductions in police killings, including Los Angeles and Philadelphia. But since the national trends have remained steady, those reductions appear to have been offset by increases in police killings elsewhere in the country.

In some rural and suburban areas outside major cities "we've actually seen increases in killings by police," Sinyangwe said. "And we see some of the racial disparities increasing as well."

Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police, according to the Mapping Police Violence data, making up 28% of those killed by police despite being only 13% of the population.

Many smaller police departments only employ a handful of officers and may not kill anyone in a given year. But arrest data compiled by the group shows massive disparities in arrests between Black and white people. In some rural and suburban areas, Black people are up to 50 times more likely to be arrested than white people.

Sinyangwe credited reforms over the past several years for helping reduce police killings in larger cities, citing data showing that the implementation of body cameras, changes to "use of force" policies and stronger accountability structures have resulted in significant reductions in fatal shootings by police.

Cities that have seen "the largest reductions in police shootings also saw substantial reductions in arrests for low-level offenses," Sinyangwe said, which may reflect a shift in policing strategy away from "broken windows" and "zero tolerance" policies that target minor offenses.

He sees a clear relationship between these apparently unrelated phenomena. "The majority of people who were killed by police were killed following an encounter that began with one of these low-level offenses," Sinyangwe said.

Shifting views found among even the country's top law enforcement officials underscore the most visible impact of the protests. Inimai Chettiar, federal director for the bipartisan Justice Action Network, told Salon the last year has seen "a shift in public opinion" in which "more people are seeing the need for police reform."

In particular, the events of the past year appear to have changed the views of white people, who have historically been highly supportive of police.

"People have become much more aware of the lack of accountability and transparency in policing when they use force," Alexis Hoag, a former public defender and professor at Brooklyn Law School, said in an interview with Salon. "They instill order through the use of violence." While "subjugated or marginalized people" have known about that for many years, Hoag said, "in the last year people who don't necessarily have contact with the police are now much more aware of all the questions," especially regarding the legal mechanisms that generally protect police and allow them to violate people's constitutional rights with impunity. 

The George Floyd protests kicked off a movement that wasn't merely about police reform but also engaged many other social justice issues, said Keesee, who formerly served as deputy commissioner for equity and inclusion at the New York Police Department.

Important questions now on the agenda, Keesee said, include "alternative responses" to mental health issues, in which non-police professionals might respond to certain kinds of calls. The larger question for communities, Keesee continued, is that of "being able to name and define what they would like 'public safety' to mean, and also influencing how that gets investment, what outcomes they hope these different changes will bring."

Progress has lagged on the federal front, where lawmakers blew through President Joe Biden's deadline to approve a police reform package by the one-year anniversary of Floyd's death. But both Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., have expressed optimism in recent days that a deal can be reached by June. The House of Representatives has twice passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would lower the criminal standard to convict law enforcement officers for misconduct, limit qualified immunity as a defense for officers in civil lawsuits and address use-of-force, accountability and transparency. The Senate has been working on a narrower bill. One apparent roadblock in negotiations is the issue of qualified immunity.

"It's unfortunate that they did not meet the president's deadline, but I think that they're still negotiating in earnest," said Chettiar, adding that she believes the "stars are aligning on qualified immunity."

"It seems promising," she said. "I think that we're closer than we've ever been to reaching a bipartisan deal."

Ending qualified immunity — an opaque term for the near-total protection police officers often have against civil suits over uses of force — would be the "farthest reaching provision of the federal legislation," Hoag said, and would "go a long way toward not just holding law enforcement officials accountable but also changing the culture of policing."

If there are "civil, financial repercussions for an officer engaging in unconstitutional use of force, when someone is held accountable for their actions," she said, "that is a message that you can't keep engaging in these actions because there will be consequences. Right now, there aren't."

But no possible legislation to emerge from Congress will be "something earth-shattering that is going to solve all of our policing problems," said Chettiar.

"I think that it is going to be a first step," she said. "But I think it's really important that both sides come together to show that there is bipartisan support for policing legislation. Up until last year, the Republicans had not embraced policing reform, so it's a pretty big deal for them to come to the table and be doing something even moderate."

Keesee stressed that the most important reforms will happen on the local level. Some states have already moved to reform qualified immunity, but Keesee argued that police training is at least as important. "It's about making sure the policies are clear and that officers understand what their roles are and what they should be doing. It's a lot of component parts, not just qualified immunity."

Various cities and states have tried to address policing issues in a piecemeal fashion. Many police departments have moved to ban or restrict the use of chokeholds and neck restraints. New York, Atlanta, Baltimore, Austin and Philadelphia have all moved to shift funding from police departments to social services. In Denver, health care workers are dispatched instead of cops to respond to mental health episodes. Berkeley, California, is moving to shift traffic stops from police to unarmed Transportation Department workers. Ithaca, New York, is moving toward replacing its entire police department with unarmed "community solution workers" and armed "public safety workers." Maryland repealed the state's police "bill of rights" and implemented new measures addressing use of force, no-knock warrants and public oversight.

But amid the reform momentum, public support for Black Lives Matter has noticeably slipped and the political narrative is increasingly focused on the nationwide rise in homicides.

But much of the media focus on the murder rate is driven by "misleading statistics and reports," Sinyangwe argued. "Murder has certainly increased, but violent crime in general and crime overall don't appear to have increased across the board. This seems to be a specific type of crime event, which likely has a lot to do with the past year being an unprecedented year for hardship and suffering, trauma and loss."

Republicans have blamed Democratic cities "defunding" the police for the homicide increase. There is no evidence to support this claim, especially since very little "defunding" has actually occurred. But even a growing number of Democrats, perhaps out of political instinct, are now pushing tough-on-crime rhetoric in response to the rise. Los Angeles lawmakers have already moved to restore police funding they significantly slashed just last year. In New York, Andrew Yang and Eric Adams, the two leading Democratic mayoral candidates, are calling to increase police funding, deploy more officers onto the streets and subways, and return to the "broken windows" policing made famous by former Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Keesee, who spent nearly three decades as a cop in Denver and New York, says she's seen this all before "If we're going to come back at this with the same things that we've historically done," she said, "it's only going to get you so much. We know from the '80s and '90s, getting 'tough on crime' and pipelining people into the prison-industrial complex, we know what that will get you. 

"This is the struggle that people are having right now, because the communities impacted by violent crime are typically Black and brown communities. They want to be safe, and they'll tell you that. But we also want to have protection and safety in a way that is not harmful to us on a daily basis. You cannot, on a long-term basis, continue doing just more patrols, more force, more folks in the neighborhood. You've got to deal with the conditions that created it."

The crime rhetoric could undermine progress made by reformers over the past 12 months.

Like many other reform advocates, Sinyangwe worries that the sudden shift toward anti-crime rhetoric could undermind all the progress of the last year. "These narratives do have political power," said Sinyangwe. "They do influence the conversation. They may threaten to derail progress that is already beginning to show results in terms of reducing police violence, saving lives, reducing low-level arrests, reducing incarceration. 

"I think it's important for us to be clear about what is working, and not buy into these theories that are not really data-driven but are focused on this myth that if there's an increase in crime, it must be because the police did something different or the police backed off," he said. "The reality is that crime is influenced by a whole bunch of factors."

The way to fight back against false narratives, he said, is simple enough: "Continue to demonstrate the efficacy of these efforts and that they're actually saving lives."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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