Will George Floyd’s Death Force the Radical Change Policing Needs?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
It took seismic — often brutal events — for major democracies to enhance police accountability in the past. Could the Minneapolis murder of George Floyd be the trigger America needs?
- From an authoritarian takeover to brutal deaths, it has taken seismic events to bring about police reforms in major democracies.
- The Minneapolis incident could spark the next wave of changes American policing clearly needs.
With one hand on his revolver, New York City police officer Frank Serpico knocked on the third-floor door. On the other side were drug dealers. Serpico had three colleagues waiting outside the apartment building, but when he cried out for help after being shot, none of the other officers came to his rescue.
Weeks later, Serpico would go on to expose deep-seated corruption in the country’s largest police department in 1970. It forced an overhaul that subsequent commissions of inquiry have said led to a reduction in systematic graft, previously commonplace in the NYPD. Now, half a century later, the killing of George Floyd by a cop in Minneapolis is sparking fresh demand for dramatic police reforms to end a culture of impunity that surrounds racial discrimination by law enforcement officials.
It’s a question of attitudinal change.
Prakash Singh, former top cop of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state
Between 2013 and 2019, police in the U.S. killed 7,666 people, according to data compiled by Mapping Police Violence, a data tracking and advocacy group. Overall, Black Americans are two-and-a-half times as likely as their white counterparts to die at the hands of the police, despite constituting only 13 percent of the population. In Minnesota, police are four times likelier to kill African Americans. And nationally, only 1 percent of cops involved in killings between 2013 and 2019 have been charged.
Yet sometimes it takes an explosion of public anger to ignite change, say experts — even in robust democracies instinctively resistant to systemic change.
“It’s a question of attitudinal change,” says Prakash Singh, former police chief of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, and India’s leading voice on police reforms. “Police in different countries have problematic legacies. In the U.S., it’s racial discrimination. In India, it’s a problem of how police deal with poor people.”
In post-independence India, the first jolt to policing practices came in 1975, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed a national emergency, suspending civil liberties. She then used the police to arrest political rivals and protestors en masse. In 1977, when she was ousted in elections after the end of the emergency, the new government instituted a National Police Commission that recommended a series of changes aimed at reducing the interference of politicians in the functioning of law enforcement — though they weren’t implemented.
Then, in 1980, police in the Indian state of Bihar blinded 31 prisoners by pouring acid in their eyes, shocking the nation. The Indian Supreme Court, for the first time, ordered compensation to victims on grounds that their human rights had been violated.
In the U.K., the murder of Black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993 eventually led to the constitution of an Independent Police Complaints Commission in 2004. Until then, all complaints against the police were investigated by departments internally.
And it took the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in 2014 for President Barack Obama to set up the Task Force on 21st Century Policing that introduced a series of recommendations — from implicit bias training to changes in use-of-force policies to reduce the chances of police killings.
But most major police reforms have been the result of court verdicts. It took a landmark Supreme Court decision in 1966 to institute what is now widely known as Miranda rights. In India, too, it was the Supreme Court in 2006 that — based on a petition filed by Singh — finally put in place reforms designed to shield police officers from political interference. Even then, Singh says, states aren’t implementing them, adding that he has spent the past 14 months seeking a hearing from the Supreme Court to set a mechanism to enforce its ruling — so far, in vain.
Meanwhile, many activists argue that police reforms aren’t enough. Minneapolis police, after all, had incorporated implicit bias training for its force — but it didn’t save Floyd’s life. Minneapolis activist groups such as Reclaim the Block, MPD150 and Black Visions Collective are instead arguing for police defunding, demanding that those resources be reallocated for “community-led health and safety strategies.”
In an election year, it’s unclear which way the wind will blow. In the meantime, it might be up to individual officers to act according to their conscience. When Al Pacino, who played the lead character in the 1973 film Serpico, asked the real-life cop why he’d taken the risk of blowing the whistle on his own colleagues, the officer thought for a second before replying. “Well, Al, I don’t know. I guess I would have to say it would be because … if I didn’t, who would I be when I listened to a piece of music?”