Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story did not include the full number of policing bills passed by Oregon lawmakers.
SEATTLE — When Washington state’s legislative session began earlier this year, racial justice advocates weren’t sure whether the police accountability measures they supported would get much traction.
“There was not a single bill at any point that we thought was surefire,” said Sakara Remmu, lead strategist with the Washington Black Lives Matter Alliance.
But by the time the session ended, Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, was signing into law a 12-bill package that was among the most comprehensive in the nation.
“Lawmakers ultimately understood one thing—the people are in the street and the voting booth and their communities using the word ‘demand,’” Remmu said. “Everybody started working last year in understanding the 2021 legislative session was absolutely critical to meeting the demands of the people.”
Racial justice activists in the state have become increasingly empowered to “hold the reins of democracy,” and their voices are beginning to resonate in Olympia, Remmu said. The laws passed in Washington ban chokeholds and neck restraints, limit the use of tear gas and ban no-knock warrants. They rework training procedures, make it easier to decertify officers for misconduct and create a new office to investigate deadly force incidents. The changes establish new policies around de-escalation and deadly force and create a duty to intervene if an officer witnesses misconduct.
State lawmakers across the country made sweeping changes to policing this year on a wide array of issues, following last summer’s worldwide protests after the murder of George Floyd. Racial justice activists say far more change is needed, but 2021 has proven to be a groundbreaking year for police accountability.
Many states passed laws to limit police use of force and mandate more detailed data collection of police activity, making those issues the most common areas of action this year, said Brandon Garrett, director of the Duke Law Wilson Center for Science and Justice. The center, which has been tracking state proposals, found that other laws covered topics such as training, body cameras, disciplinary records, decertification procedures, investigations, qualified immunity and biometric data.
“I’ve never seen a surge of legislative activity like this,” Garrett said. “What made this past year exciting was not just the number of bills, but legislators touching on subjects that have never been touched before.”
Duke Law’s project found that seven states and the District of Columbia took a “comprehensive” approach to the issue, passing wide-ranging packages. All—Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, New York, Maryland, Massachusetts and Washington state—have Democratic-led legislatures.
Many other states have acted as well. Since May of 2020, when Floyd’s death became a national cause, more than 3,000 law enforcement-related bills have been introduced by state lawmakers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Nineteen states have limited or eliminated neck restraints. Fifteen states addressed statewide standards for the use of force, and 15 created a duty to intervene for officers who witness a fellow officer using excessive force.
Eleven states empowered state officials to investigate misconduct after incidents, and five gave their attorneys general the authority to investigate patterns and practices at police agencies. Five states have provided guidance for state agencies on decertifying officers, along with five that now require publication of disciplinary records after an officer’s decertification.
At least six states have mandated statewide adoption of body cameras. And four states have passed legislation limiting government immunity as a defense for civil rights claims, known as “qualified immunity.”
Statehouses also saw a surge in police-related bills after the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, “but not like this,” said Amber Widgery, program principal with NCSL’s Criminal Justice Program.
“There’s been a tremendous uptick in volume overall, but the bigger story is the number of bills that have gotten traction,” Widgery said. “Police accountability has been a big priority in a lot of different states.”
The most sweeping changes came in states with Democratic majorities, but even some red states such as Florida, Indiana and Utah enacted bipartisan measures. In some places, though, GOP majorities stifled attempts at broader accountability laws. Some even passed laws to further empower police, banning local governments from cutting their budgets and cracking down on protesters.
In some states, police groups worked with lawmakers on measures they said would improve their profession, such as legislation to weed out bad cops. In others, law enforcement leaders say they’ve been playing defense, and legislators are no longer interested in what they have to say.
“There’s room to make some changes without destroying the criminal justice system, but nobody's asking us,” said Peter Kehoe, executive director of the New York State Sheriffs’ Association. “We have many progressive legislators who just don’t like police.”
‘The Tide Is Shifting’
Even before the surge of bills this year, Virginia lawmakers last fall held a special session focused on police policy changes. State Sen. Mamie Locke, a Democrat, sponsored the package to restrict no-knock warrants and chokeholds, and to create a process for decertifying officers for misconduct.
Locke said Democrats’ newfound majorities in the Virginia statehouse helped enable the changes, noting that some lawmakers and activists had called for similar measures for years.
“It was time,” she said. “The tide is shifting in terms of the need for reform.”
In Florida, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers passed a law that forces officers to disclose if they left their previous agency while under investigation. The measure also requires departments to retain employment records for five years after an officer leaves, and it updates police training and tactics with provisions on chokeholds, use of force, de-escalation and a duty to intervene.
“It was important to strike while the iron was hot,” said state Rep. Fentrice Driskell, a Democrat who sponsored the bill. “The entire world was paying attention to this, and that was a very important factor in us being able to get this done.”
Oregon lawmakers passed 22 bills aimed at changing policing. The measures will strengthen misconduct reporting mandates, limit the release of booking photos, prevent officers from obscuring identification numbers and limit the ability of police to charge someone for interfering with an officer. Much of the legislation came from the House Judiciary Committee’s Equitable Policing Subcommittee, led by Democratic state Rep. Janelle Bynum.
Bynum said the Oregon legislature’s fast-growing Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) Caucus brought perspective and momentum to the issue.
“We’d never had numbers like that before,” she said. “We also got record injections of cash from the federal government, which also made funding some of these priorities possible. If we were scaling back and having to cut our budget, that puts people in a completely different mindset.”
In other states, though, Republicans stymied proposed policing changes. A package in Texas known as the George Floyd Act never received a full vote in the House or Senate, much to the dismay of Democrats and activists.
“This was a terrible session for police reform,” Lauren Johnson, a policy strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, told the Houston Press.
And some Minnesota activists have decried a compromise measure passed by lawmakers there, calling it a “slap in the face,” the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported.
The Police Role
In some states, law enforcement leaders worked alongside legislators. Indiana state Rep. Greg Steuerwald, a Republican, credited police groups for the success of his measure, which the legislature unanimously approved earlier this year. The new law limits chokeholds, mandates de-escalation training and penalizes officers who turn off their body cameras.
Most importantly, Steuerwald said, the law makes it easier to decertify officers for misconduct and requires that agencies review the employment files of officers who apply at their departments.
“I heard many stories from law enforcement that they brought disciplinary action against an officer, then found out that he had applied elsewhere,” Steuerwald said. “Law enforcement thought the General Assembly should address that to enhance their ability to provide proper public safety.”
Elsewhere, though, police say the desire to make big changes cut them out of the conversation.
“It almost seems like folks see something on TV in another state and they feel there needs to be a law,” said Brian Marvel, president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California. “There's been so much legislation, we have no idea what the ultimate ramifications are going to be.”
Marvel said his group supports efforts to create a decertification process for rogue officers, but that the bill California lawmakers are currently considering would create an advisory board with an anti-police bias. The association also opposed a bill to eliminate neck restraints, which Marvel called “a very effective tool.”
In New York, police leaders are warily watching several proposals that came forward this session but did not pass.
“They don’t really seek our opinion on anything,” said Kehoe, the sheriffs’ leader. “We don't have much of an affirmative agenda right now, because there's nobody listening to us. We're trying to stem the tide.”
Kehoe said proposals to expunge criminal records and ease punishments for parole violations would lead to an increase in crime and make police officers feel devalued. The group also opposes a qualified immunity bill.
The Work Ahead
Lawmakers, activists and researchers say that many police-related policies will likely be revisited in future sessions. For now, many states are attracted to employment-related measures, said Widgery, the state legislative expert.
“One of the biggest areas where states have direct influence is certification, decertification and training of officers,” she said. “There hadn't been a lot of change in that area of the law for a while, and we're seeing a lot of new requirements and state-level oversight.”
Locke, of Virginia, said lawmakers still need to address reforms on sentencing minimums and expungement for past offenders. In Oregon, Bynum wants to expand training and accountability provisions and improve transparency for misconduct and use of force records. Remmu, the Washington activist, wants to see community oversight commissions and changes to qualified immunity.
“We have a foothold now,” she said. “It was important for the people to see the return on their blood and sweat equity, because that hasn’t been happening. It would be a shame if it’s a one-and-done, but I don’t see that as the reality.”