police officer leans into passenger side window of a squad car

In the six months after George Floyd’s death during his arrest in Minneapolis last year, at least 37 states and the District of Columbia introduced some 700 pieces of new legislation addressing policing policy.

Policing Policy Trends: Balancing Accountability With Safety

By Julie Lays | Feb. 9, 2021 | State Legislatures Magazine

Several high-profile deaths involving law enforcement officers, including the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis during his arrest last May, have driven national conversations and legislative action around police training, accountability and more.

At a recent State Policy 101 session, NCSL experts discussed the policing issues state legislatures have been focused on and which policies are being addressed in statehouses across the country and in Congress. NCSL presents the sessions on a variety of policy topics every Friday in February.

Susan Frederick, NCSL’s senior federal affairs counsel, who’s based in Washington, D.C., discussed the current federal government role in policing policy. Historically, she said, police matters were more a local issue than a state or federal concern.

The Justice in Policing Act was introduced in Congress last year following Floyd’s death. It passed the U.S. House but not the Senate. The bill addresses a wide range of policies and issues regarding policing practices, including measures to increase accountability for law enforcement misconduct, to enhance transparency and data collection, and to eliminate discriminatory policing practices. Frederick thinks that legislation will see more action this year.

Federal Policing Policy

Federal funding would depend on a state’s compliance with the law. There are a couple other funding streams available to states for policing issues as well, Frederick said, though some bypass the states and go directly to the local police.

The president can shape policies through executive orders. President Joe Biden has indicated he seeks the development of national standards of appropriate police conduct to help eradicate racially based misconduct from policing in America, Frederick said.

Frederick finished by noting the federal origins of granting qualified immunity to police officers. The practice came under scrutiny in the wake of Floyd’s death. It comes from a 1982 Supreme Court ruling that federal government officials were entitled to be shielded from criminal prosecution and lawsuits, as long as their actions were within the scope of their jobs.

States Get More Involved

Amber Widgery, a program principal in NCSL’s Criminal Justice Program, gave a quick but thorough overview of what states have been doing. The catalyst for greater state involvement in the traditionally local responsibility, Widgery said, was the fatal shooting of the unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.

Following Brown’s death, protests and demonstrations broke out and proposed legislation involving new technology, such as body cameras, increased. Then came the events of 2020, and lawmakers responded again.

In the six months after Floyd’s death, Widgery reported that at least 37 states and the District of Columbia introduced some 700 pieces of new legislation addressing policing policy. Nearly half the states enacted legislation addressing a broad range of issues.

Zach Herman, a policy associate with NCSL’s Employment, Labor and Retirement Program, joined Widgery in discussing the variety of topics the state legislation covers:

  • Accountability.
  • Use-of-force standards.
  • Officer training, certification and decertification.
  • Qualified immunity.
  • Bias reduction training.
  • Body cameras.
  • National reporting standards of police misconduct.
  • Independent oversight.
  • Limiting the use of traffic citation quotas.
  • No-knock warrants.
  • Transparency.

The informative session ended with a demonstration of how to use NCSL’s Legislative Responses for Policing—State Bill Tracking Database, which contains information on policing legislation and executive orders that have been introduced in the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Bill status information for the current year is updated daily, and new measures and executive orders are added to the database as they are introduced or identified by NCSL staff. Search for legislation by state, topic, keyword, year, status or primary sponsor. Policing topics include oversight and data, training, standards and certification, use of force, technology, policing alternatives and collaboration, and executive orders. 

Julie Lays is the editor of State Legislatures magazine.

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