by Sophie Trist
Six months ago, George Floyd’s brutal murder at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin ripped open old scars that have been present since before our nation’s founding. Millions of people took to the streets across America and the world in a massive wave of mostly nonviolent protest. This bottom-up call for racial justice paved the way for critical conversations about how America’s criminal justice system, from encounters with police officers all the way through trial and incarceration, consistently and systemically devalues Black Lives. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021, sponsored by Rep. Karen Base (D-CA), chairwoman of the House’s Black Caucus, provides a first step in our long fight to dismantle systemic racism and create communities which rehumanize instead of criminalize people of color.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act (JPA) aims to ban the use of chokeholds like the one that ended George Floyd’s life, restrict the use of no-knock warrants such as the one that led to the death of Breonna Taylor, and ban racial or religious profiling by police departments. The bill also aims to hold police officers accountable for abuse by rolling back qualified immunity, making it easier for victims of police brutality to get justice through the courts. The JPA also streamlines the process for prosecuting cases of police misconduct and makes provisions for independent prosecutors to investigate police brutality, as cops often have very close and compromising relationships with district attorneys. Though the federal government has little control over how state and local governments police their populations, the JPA incentivizes reform by making provisions to redirect federal funding toward police departments which comply and away from those which don’t.
The JPA is not without its critics. While many civil rights groups applaud the bill as a first step, they maintain that it doesn’t go far enough in dismantling systemic racism and militarized policing. The ACLU calls on Congress to perfect the JPA by completely eliminating the program which gives police officers access to military-grade weapons and turns communities into war zones. They also urge the Senate to go further in eliminating qualified immunity and to prevent facial recognition technology from police body cameras from contributing to our already Orwellian surveillance system. Human Rights Watch (HRW) points out that despite months of racial justice protests, 645 people have been killed by police officers since George Floyd’s murder. HRW is concerned that the JPA does not do enough to divest from police and reinvest in life-affirming community programs. Instead of creating more studies and commissions, HRW argues, the JPA should focus on drastically rethinking systems which criminalize people of color, people with disabilities, and people in poverty.
As a white woman, I never learned to fear the police. I was taught, from an early age, that police could always be trusted, and it is only in recent years that I’ve come to see the vast gulf between my experiences with law enforcement and those of my BIPOC brothers and sisters. While there is no comprehensive national data on police violence (something the JPA aims to fix), statistics show that unarmed Black people are killed by police at significantly higher rates than whites. Of the more than 1,000 unarmed people killed by law enforcement between 2013 and 2019, one-third were Black. The statistics on mental illness and police violence are equally abhorrent, with people suffering from untreated mental illness being sixteen times more likely to be killed by police. Being poor, Black, or mentally ill should never be treated as a crime. By over-relying on law enforcement to deal with social problems like homelessness, addiction, and mental illness, we’re upholding racist structures which violate the human dignity and human rights of poor, Black, and disabled people on a daily basis. All lives won’t matter until Black lives matter, and that starts with rethinking policing in this country. The JPA is far from the be-all and end-all of racial justice, but it opens the door for future conversations about what a truly whole-life society can do to reform law enforcement and create thriving, supportive communities.