The death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, was the catalyst to a summer of protest and political action. After months where millions of Americans have taken (and continue to take) to the street as part of the Black Lives Matter movement, the question remains: what will the result be? Measuring the success of more nebulously defined goals- like the effort to defund the police- are difficult to nail down, but tracking specific policy responses is a tangible measure of impact.
To that end, GovPredict analyzed three key areas of state legislative response to this summer’s protests.¹ They are: changes to police use of force policies; the demilitarization of police departments; and updates to qualified immunity policies. These policy changes are common enough to be compared across multiple states. For each policy, GovPredict analyzed new or unusual legislative activity across time or geography.
The most common policy response to address police brutality concerns updates to police use-of-force policies. These updates have included, but are not limited to, requiring de-escalation during confrontations, requiring other officers to intervene when another officer is using excessive force, banning officers from firing at moving vehicles, developing a continuum that limits what kind of force can be used in a given situation, and requiring the reporting of instances where force is used by officers.
During a typical state legislative cycle, most new bills are introduced in January and February, with fewer and fewer introductions happening over the rest of the spring and summer.
Bills proposing new use-of-force policies followed the usual pattern during 2016-2019 (in red below). 2020, however, displays a markedly different pattern (in blue).
¹ Policy changes have undoubtedly begun to move at the local and even federal level, but for the sake of a standardized, focused approach, this analysis focuses on state governments; local and federal analysis are certainly subjects worthy of future, further examination.
In the summer of 2020, use-of-force policies received unprecedented attention from state governments. For the beginning of the year, proposals concerning police use of force were comparable to the average of the previous four years, but after May, they spiked. The vast majority of bills were introduced within the same month that protests began, and interestingly, the frequency of their introduction has tapered in subsequent months.
GovPredict next analyzed the geography of these legislative proposals. Use-of-force policy proposals since May have been distributed relatively evenly across the country, with particularly intense concentrations in California and Minnesota (where George Floyd’s death in police custody occurred):
Additionally, this type of legislation has already seen some success, despite having been introduced so recently. Of 93 relevant proposals, 10 bills have been passed and signed into law, and 10 more have passed at least one chamber of the legislature. The states that have signed such legislation into law are: Connecticut, Minnesota, Oregon, Delaware, Georgia, New York, as well as the District of Columbia.
GovPredict also analyzed policy activity at the local level for a particularly salient sub-category of use-of-force policies: chokeholds. Compared to the average of previous years, there has been a 345% increase in mentions of chokeholds in local government policy in 2020 so far:
This specific action on chokeholds at the local level is distributed fairly evenly across the country, with a high cluster of activity in the Northeast:
Demilitarization of Police
Over the course of recent decades, local and state police departments have come to use military-grade equipment in their daily operations. This is supported by the federal Department of Defense; data from 2006-2014 showed that local and state police had been equipped with everything from helicopters to tanks to sniper rifles to grenade launchers. After the Obama administration scaled back this program, the Trump administration reinstated it in 2017.
Prior to this year, state governments paid very little attention to the issue at all. On average, no more than 4 proposals were made in state legislatures concerning the militarization of police. As was the case with use-of-force policies, bills concerning the demilitarization of police followed a predictable pattern from 2016-2019 (again in red) with a significant spike in the summer of 2020 (again in blue).
With the combination of stalled federal executive or Congressional action on the policy and a summer of protests seeking to rein in the power of police departments, the frequency of state proposals concerning the militarization of police has more than doubled in the summer of 2020. However, of the 15 bills introduced since May, only one (in Minnesota) has passed:
The final area of state policy that GovPredict analyzed concerns “qualified immunity” rules that grant government officials (including police officers) immunity from civil lawsuits. As the Supreme Court has not taken up any new cases concerning the issue, and the prospect of ending qualified immunity has stalled in Congress, state-level reform has become a more likely avenue of policy change.
During a typical legislative year, states considered legislation regarding police and qualified immunity in a similar pattern as the previous policies. But in 2020, interestingly, much more legislation around this topic was proposed in January and February than a typical year, even before the summer’s protests began. And there has still been a similar, but smaller, spike of legislation following the beginning of protests in May:
Qualified immunity proposals concerning police have been proposed by state legislatures across the country, with a concentration of legislative activity from states in the Northeast:
Of the 17 state qualified immunity proposals since the summer’s protests began, only one has passed, and three are engrossed. Interestingly, of those bills that have seen success so far, three of them- in Massachusetts (passed one chamber), Virginia (passed one chamber), and Colorado (signed into law)- seek to end qualified immunity for police officers entirely in their respective states:
GovPredict’s analysis indicates that tangible state policy responses are already happening as a result of this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. However, in the three policy cases GovPredict examined, the number of new proposals has declined in subsequent months since June; the long-term policy implications of this summer’s protests have yet to be seen, both in terms of new proposals being made and the success of bills becoming law.
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