States race to pass policing reforms after Floyd's death

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FILE - In this Saturday, July 25, 2020, file photo, the words "I can't breathe" are flashed on a wall during a Black Lives Matter protest in Portland, Ore. State legislatures across the U.S. are pushing an array of policing reforms after the demonstrations related to the death of George Floyd last spring, from banning chokeholds to making it easier to hold officers legally accountable for their actions. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

RICHMOND, Va. – The death of George Floyd and widespread protests over racial injustice have prompted several states to move at a lightning pace to pass significant policing reform proposals that in some cases have languished for years.

The urgency is bipartisan, as both Democratic and Republican majorities in various legislatures have moved quickly to pass bills banning chokeholds, making it easier to hold officers legally accountable for their actions and other reforms. GOP-controlled Iowa took about a week to pass a series of policing bills in mid-June. A week later, the Colorado Legislature, where Democrats hold the majority, passed a sweeping police accountability bill that sped through the legislative process with bipartisan support.

Minnesota passed a broad slate of police accountability measures that include a ban on neck restraints like the one used on George Floyd before his death in Minneapolis. The state is one of only two in the country where partisan control of the legislature is split.

“This kind of rapid response from legislators, on this type of issue particularly, is not something I’ve ever seen previously,” Amber Widgery, a program principal on criminal justice issues at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Since Floyd’s death in late May, there have been about 450 pieces of policing reform proposals introduced in 31 states, according to a count by the NCSL. Many states had finished their normal legislative session at the time of Floyd's death and are planning to address police accountability next year. But some states are having special sessions this year and others moved quickly to pass bills during the normal legislative calendar.

"The national protests that followed George Floyd’s killing have shown that the nation is demanding stronger police accountability,” said California state Sen. Steven Bradford.

California’s legislature is in the final month of a session repeatedly interrupted by the pandemic and lawmakers are pushing to enact nearly a dozen police-related laws. One would require law enforcement officers to immediately intercede and report what they believe to be the use of excessive force. Another would allow criminal suspects to apply for victims’ compensation if they were injured by police use of excessive force.

Another state expected to take action soon is Virginia, where a new Democratic majority disappointed some criminal justice reform advocates earlier this year with a go-slow approach. Now lawmakers are set to debate a wide range of policing and other reforms in a special session starting later this month. One proposal that has drawn pushback would downgrade the charge of assault on a police officer from a felony to a misdemeanor in cases where the officer is not injured.