It’s Not Enough. But It’s Something.

“What has Joe Biden done since George Floyd’s murder?” asked a recent letter to the editor. The President, as I used to lecture my kids, is not in charge of the police. And while there’s much that can and should be done at the national level on police reform and racial equity, there’s a lot that’s occurred at the local and state level in the two years since Floyd’s death.

In the two years since the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, dozens of cities and the people living in them have been galvanized into action, resulting in numerous efforts to combat police brutality and implement initiatives that make our world safer and more equitable.

Much of this work has involved changing public images, like the renaming of roads or the dismantling of confederate monuments. In 2020 alone, 168 confederate symbols were removed from locations across the US, with 94 of those symbols being monuments. Removing confederate monuments continues to be a controversial topic, but the idea is gaining steam; for the first time, a majority of Americans approve of the removal of statues. In 2018, only 35% of Americans believed that the monuments should be removed but that number had jumped to 51% by 2020.

Also, Americans are becoming more receptive to the idea of fighting inequity in general. A poll conducted in May 2021 revealed that 69% of Americans think that racial injustice is a problem in the country, while 60% of participants became more concerned about racial injustice than they were in the year before. Clearly, there is a shift in attitude surrounding the topic and how we can reckon with certain parts of our history and modern society.

There are also many examples of policy actions being taken across U.S. cities, with at least 33 of the 100 largest cities in the country implementing some form of police reform in 2020. Many of these policing changes are simple, only going as far as banning chokeholds during confrontations, but some are more comprehensive, such as ending qualified immunity for officers or requiring officers to undergo psychological evaluations to ensure they do not hold racial biases.

Additionally, at least 32 cities in the US created dedicated equity offices between the years of 2014 and 2020, with more cities joining the ranks constantly. These offices are focused on a variety of missions and scopes, from public health to economic equity to fostering a culture of equity and inclusion within their given cities.

Much is also happening at the state level. Over 30 states have passed more than 140 new police oversight and reform laws since May 2020, according to a New York Times analysis of data from the National Conference of State Legislatures, with many of these reforms garnering bipartisan support. A large number of the changes were adopted within months of the George Floyd murder, including laws prohibiting chokeholds in 17 states.

It’s easy to be skeptical that these changes will have any lasting value or actually make a difference, but changes sometimes lead to successful outcomes, like in Dallas, where reforms were made following police shootings in 2012 highlighted the fact that the city had higher per-capita rate of police-involved shootings than Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles. After a slate of policing changes, police shootings in Dallas were subsequently reduced by over 66%.

Another example of positive outcomes is the Denver STAR (Support Team Assisted Response) program, which lies at the intersection of police reform and efforts to increase public health. STAR, a mobile unit of mental health professionals, provides crisis response to members of the Denver community who are dealing with issues such as depression, poverty, homelessness, substance abuse, or suicidal thoughts. During its first year, STAR responded to 1,396 calls, which resulted in no arrests, injuries, or need for police backup. Of these calls that STAR responded to, it’s not hard to imagine that some may have ended with arrests, or even deaths if regular police officers had responded to them.

An example of racial healing involving restorative justice comes from Evanston, Illinois, which has become the first U.S. city to approve a reparations program for eligible black residents. The program is focused on housing, and it would give eligible households $25,000 to pay down mortgages or use for home improvements or towards a down payment on a new home. The hope is that this program will help build the wealth of Black/African American residents, increase their homeownership rates and improve the retention rate of Black homeowners in the city.

Although there is good work being done across the country and there is evidence that these efforts are working, there is still much to be done. Despite many good intentions, the pace of police shootings in 2022 remains about the same as it has since at least 2015.

Reform of policies and practices alone isn’t enough. For there to be real change, equity and fairness need to ingrained into all of our systems and be supported by the public to the point of elevating trust across all populations. Fortunately, local government starts with a relatively high level of trust, at least compared to the national level, and this is where change can and is taking place. While it doesn’t always get picked up by the national media, communities are making real change.

This article was written in collaboration with Cole Herrera, Policy Intern at the National Civic League. 

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