From George Floyd to Tyre Nichols, Pleas for Police Reform Meet Bleak Reality

Washington Post photo by Joshua Lott
People attend a news conference in Memphis on Tuesday about Tyre Nichols, who died three days after he was beaten by police.

Not long after George Floyd’s death fueled nationwide protests in 2020, a police chief in North Carolina called for sweeping changes to rein in excessive force – stricter policies, mandatory de-escalation training and a database to track abusive officers.

Testifying before Congress in June 2020, Cerelyn Davis, then the chief in Durham and president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, declared that the moment demanded nothing less than “policing reimagined.”

But more than two years later, that comprehensive approach remains out of reach. The policies Davis called for have not been adopted nationwide. And policing is once again confronting a crisis caused by video footage of officers using brutal force – this time in Memphis, where Davis is now the chief.

Officers’ beating of Tyre Nichols on a dark Memphis street illustrates a stark reality: The sweeping overhauls that demonstrators, public officials and some law enforcement leaders called for never materialized. Instead, there has been a patchwork series of reforms – some significant and far-reaching, others incremental and haltingly adopted – scattered across some of America’s thousands of local police departments, according to interviews with policing experts, former law enforcement officials, civil rights advocates, community leaders and others.

“There has been progress in different places, in different ways,” said Chris Magnus, the former police chief in Tucson and the ex-Customs and Border Protection commissioner. “But I can’t disagree that there are still some pretty big things that need to be worked on and improved.”

Even police unions, long viewed by reform advocates as a major impediment to change, expressed frustration. Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police, blamed an apparent lack of supervision in Memphis for creating an environment in which the officers appeared almost nonchalant about their misconduct.

“I have no idea what the damn answer is,” Pasco said. He added that his group, one of the most prominent and influential law enforcement organizations, backed legislation on police changes that failed in the Senate two years ago and remains willing to negotiate.

“I always try to take a long view on these things,” he said. “But the fact is, taking that long view hasn’t really resulted in much progress.”

There have been some important advances, according to law enforcement analysts. New laws, policies and practices have been enacted across the country, some of them substantial. Since Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, states have passed hundreds of bills aimed at improving policing. Authorities added policies mandating body cameras and requiring that officers intervene when they see peers using excessive force. Some departments have tried to have mental health professionals, not armed police, respond to calls about people in crisis.

Yet at the same time, since Floyd’s death, police have also shot and killed more people than they did beforehand. Fatal shootings by police have risen each year since 2020, and last year, police shot and killed nearly 1,100 people, according to a Washington Post database tracking such cases.

Congressional efforts to enact legislation requiring broader changes failed amid widespread Republican opposition. And with gun violence and homicides up in recent years, local authorities pumping more money into their police have, in some cases, turned to specialized units like the “Scorpion” team in Memphis that employed the five officers charged in Nichols’s death.

Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed in 2020, summed up the issue in miniature: After his death, the city was the epicenter of the debate over policing. Local officials pledged to dismantle the police force and replace it with a new public safety agency. Some of them later backed away from such a pledge, and the following year, with residents concerned about an increase in shootings and violence, voters rejected a proposal to replace the police with a new agency.

“The spike in homicides that we saw in many cities, I think it gets difficult for politicians and for city leaders to not want to embrace policing,” said Justin Nix, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska Omaha. “Minneapolis being ground zero was a perfect example. Politicians came out and made bold claims about how they were going to reimagine policing. Crime went up and they got cold feet.”

Nichols’s death in Memphis, like Floyd’s in Minneapolis, became a nationwide flash point in which policing tactics or uses of force spurred criticism and scrutiny. Memphis joined a roster of cities that, since 2014, has included New York, Chicago, Charlotte, Cleveland, Louisville, Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., among many others.

For some observers, video of officers pummeling Nichols highlighted what they see as a core problem that has not changed despite the outrage ignited in these places and others again and again: Despite targeting specific policy changes, police and government leaders have yet to fully grapple with entrenched cultures of impunity and brutality within some departments.

“This is just basic, bad police culture,” said Georgetown University law professor Christy E. Lopez, a former Justice Department official who helped oversee the federal investigation into the Ferguson Police Department after an officer fatally shot Michael Brown, an 18-year-old, in 2014.

“We’ve known for a long time we have bad police culture,” Lopez said. “This just underscores the enormity of a problem that requires every state to work and every community to work on this. In some ways, we have to remake expectations of what policing is.”

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While cases like Nichols’s death often spur nationwide debates, policing in the United States is a very decentralized profession. There are about 18,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide, most of them local police departments and sheriff’s offices, according to federal data. And the vast majority of these local departments are small, with three-quarters employing fewer than 25 officers, according to a 2016 federal survey.

Analysts say the sheer breadth of policing can affect how reform plays out, making it difficult to enact sweeping changes across such a large number of agencies. And different departments, as well as states, counties or cities, can have varying policies, mandates, requirements and approaches to the use of force, training and accountability.

Still, though there has not been any singular nationwide shift, there has been considerable work done on the local and state level, experts said.

“There has been quite a bit of change,” said Stephen Rushin, a law professor at Loyola University Chicago who studies policing. “People often . . . expect or want to see big, sweeping national action at the federal level. But policing is handled overwhelmingly by localities. So the changes that happen are often changes within departmental policies, with departmental manuals or general orders, within union contracts or state statutes.”

Since Floyd was killed, state legislatures have approved nearly 300 bills dealing with police reform issues, according to the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland. Those included measures limiting the use of chokeholds, creating new restrictions on when force can be used, and mandating body cameras statewide in places including Connecticut and Colorado. New Mexico scrapped qualified immunity, which shields police officers from being sued for violating people’s civil rights. In Maryland, lawmakers adopted widespread police accountability measures, imposing strict use-of-force standards and requiring body cameras.

Police-worn body cameras have been touted as a way to help officers and the public alike, though some departments that adopted them amid calls for reform later ditched them, citing the high cost of storing the data. The Memphis officers were wearing body cameras, and the videos fueled additional criticism and questions; they were recorded saying Nichols reached for their guns, something not captured on any footage.

Nix, the University of Nebraska Omaha professor, said that while body cameras are not perfect, they have been broadly beneficial.

Before body cameras, Nix said, it was typically “the officer’s word against the victim, and the victim is dead.” Studies have shown that using such cameras can reduce police uses of force along with misconduct complaints against officers, he said.

Some other changes have also been undertaken on a more local level, including some cities now sending mental health teams, rather than officers, in response to certain calls.

According to The Post’s database of police shootings, about 1 in 5 of these fatal shootings involve people struggling with mental illness. Cities including Albuquerque, Orlando and Denver have begun sending specialized teams to respond to calls about people in crisis, following on the heels of a similar program in Eugene, Ore. The results have been promising: A study found that Denver’s program led to a drop in certain crimes there during a six-month period.

These efforts have unfolded while deadly police shootings have climbed nationwide. While the videos in Minneapolis and Memphis did not involve officers opening fire, fatal shootings by police have driven protests again and again in communities across the country.

The Post began tracking fatal shootings by on-duty police in 2015, the year after a White officer shot Michael Brown, a Black 18-year-old, in Ferguson, sparking unrest and a nationwide debate over how police use deadly force.

Most people shot and killed by police have been armed, The Post’s database shows, and the overwhelming majority of shootings are deemed justified. In many of these cases, defenders of police have said officers feared for their lives while confronting people armed with weapons, usually guns.

Despite the intense push for police reform that swelled in 2020, police that year shot and killed 1,019 people, the highest annual number since The Post began tracking shootings. Then the number climbed in 2021 to 1,048 people, reaching a new high, and it rose again in 2022, when police shot and killed 1,096 people. Memphis was one of the departments with an increase; police there shot and killed four people last year, up from one the year before.

Last year, protests erupted in Akron, Ohio, after police fatally shot Jayland Walker during a chase that began with a traffic stop. In Columbus, an officer shot and killed Donovan Lewis while officers were there to arrest him. In Minneapolis, police shot and killed Amir Locke during a predawn no-knock raid.

While The Post has tallied fatal shootings for nearly a decade, and resources like Mapping Police Violence as well as Fatal Encounters track shootings along with other deaths, there is still no comprehensive data available on numerous other uses of force

There is no nationwide data tracking how often police shoot people who survive, for example. Last year, The Post and Berkeley Journalism’s Investigative Reporting Program found that between 2015 and 2020, officers in more than 150 departments shot and killed more than 2,100 people – and shot and wounded 1,600 others, suggesting a largely undocumented toll each year.

There has been at least one visible shift involving police use of force since Floyd was killed: More officers have been charged with murder or manslaughter for on-duty shootings, according to data tracked by Philip Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University.

There were 10 officers charged in such cases in 2018, Stinson’s data show, and 12 charged in 2019. That number climbed to 16 officers in 2020, 21 officers in 2021 and 20 officers in 2020, echoing earlier increases in such prosecutions brought in the aftermath of Ferguson.

Conviction rates in the cases after Ferguson remained largely unchanged from those brought beforehand, with most officers walking free or being convicted on lesser charges. Criminal justice experts and veteran lawyers say this is probably due to a combination of the law being on their side, with the shootings typically deemed justified and legal, along with jurors and judges generally having trust in police officers.

Stinson noted that the additional prosecutions accompanied an increase in fatal shootings by officers, so the percentage of cases leading to charges remains essentially unchanged.

“It seems like business as usual,” Stinson said of shootings and uses of force by police. “The culture of policing, or what I’d call the subculture of policing, does not change quickly. You can legislate policy changes at the federal level, at the state level, even the local level, but we’re just not seeing differences in police behaviors.”

Policing leaders also say they can struggle to get rid of officers who display poor behavior, something chiefs have attributed to powerful unions and independent arbitrators impeding efforts at discipline. Unions, meanwhile, have defended their actions by saying they protect officers from arbitrary or unfair punishment.

Magnus, the former Tucson chief, said chiefs’ efforts to oust troubled officers can be thwarted, even though “some of the same officers keep popping up on the radar over and over again.”

Photo for The Washington Post by Eric Thayer
Courtney Stewart stands at a memorial for Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in November 2014. Brown was fatally shot by police earlier that year.

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In his first address to Congress in April 2021, President Biden cited the “knee of injustice on the neck of Black Americans” – a reference to former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin’s role in Floyd’s murder – as he called on lawmakers to rally behind the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which the House passed the next month.

The bill aimed to establish a national database of police officers with records of misconduct, ban federal officers from using chokeholds, and require police in localities that receive federal money to wear body cameras.

The bill’s collapse in the Senate, amid GOP opposition that the legislation went too far in constraining police, forced a shift in the administration’s strategy, as Biden aides scrambled to negotiate a series of executive actions that would win support of civil rights activists and police unions.

In the meantime, the push for a strong federal hand in police reform fell primarily to the Justice Department, which under Attorney General Merrick Garland opened sweeping “pattern or practice” civil investigations into police departments in Minneapolis, Louisville and six other cities, while ramping up criminal prosecutions of individual officers, including those involved in Floyd’s death.

In fiscal year 2022, the Justice Department charged more than 60 law enforcement officials with civil rights-related offenses in more than 50 cases, federal officials said.

Civil rights activists have been frustrated at the pace of the federal efforts. The Justice Department’s investigations in Minneapolis and Louisville have been underway for more than 1½ years. Costly, court-mandated consent decrees ordering police changes in other cities have lasted up to a decade with mixed results.

The Louisville investigation, started after officers killed Breonna Taylor, a Black woman, in March 2020, could be wrapped up by spring, according to a person familiar with the case who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an open investigation. In the meantime, the city has struggled to move the police department forward. Erika Shields, a reform-minded police chief hired in Louisville in early 2021, announced her resignation in November after voters elected a new mayor.

“I can’t say we’re seeing any real change yet,” said Sadiqa Reynolds, the former head of the Louisville Urban League. She added: “We’re not thinking big enough when it comes to how we are managing police. . . . We have to do something about the racism. At the core of this is that a Black life doesn’t mean as much.”

In 2022, with midterm elections looming and cities across the country contending with surges in homicides, Republicans painted Biden’s administration as soft on crime. Biden, who had previously distanced himself from activists’ calls to redirect police funding to social services and other programs, reiterated his stance that year, calling for $13 billion to put an additional 100,000 officers on the streets.

“We should all agree: The answer is not to ‘defund the police,'” Biden said in his 2022 State of the Union address. “It’s to fund the police. . . . Fund them with the resources and training they need to protect our communities.”

The Justice Department set up new programs to bolster collaborative reform with local police. At a policing conference in Los Angeles in April 2022 – 30 years after the acquittal of four officers in the beating of Rodney King set off rioting in that city – Justice Department officials announced the launch of a federal “knowledge lab” to share best practices on efforts to curb excessive force.

“For most of the 18,000 police departments in the United States, the Biden administration’s carrot approach won’t work,” said Georgetown University law professor Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor. He suggested the administration take steps to tie federal grant funding to specific reforms from local police departments.

“This is a moment where the pressure has to be amped up to the maximum degree,” he said. Noting that Biden has invited Nichols’s parents to attend his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Butler added: “President Biden dare not say ‘fund the police’ in front of two parents who have just lost their son based on the violence of five police officers.”

The White House’s efforts to produce an executive action plan on police overhauls was delayed for months after police unions objected to proposed language citing “systemic racism” within the criminal justice system. After that language was altered, Biden announced his executive order on May 25, 2022, the second anniversary of Floyd’s death.

The plan has 92 measures, including the creation of national standards for the accreditation of police departments and a national database of federal officers with disciplinary records. The Justice Department is working to implement that order.

Amid the public outrage over Nichols’s killing, Democratic lawmakers, led by Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, have pledged to again introduce federal legislation on policing. On Thursday, Biden met at the White House with Booker and five other members of the Congressional Black Caucus, all Democrats, to discuss their efforts, telling them “my hope is this dark memory spurs some action that we’ve all been fighting for.”

Republicans are already balking, and there is little expectation in Washington of a deal, especially heading into a presidential election cycle.

Civil rights advocates who led the protest movement in 2020 said the past 2½ years have demonstrated the limits of the reform debate, saying the only solution is a major reduction in the role of police.

Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party, denounced the Memphis officers for stopping Nichols in the first place, for what they said was a traffic violation. Police officers are involved in a lot of activities that have little to do with preventing or solving crime, he said, and changing how the public views their jobs could result in fewer chances of an escalation to deadly force.

There are, Mitchell said, “a lot of policy solutions that involve us reducing the police footprint so that these interactions never happen.”