A year after George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer, his family returned Tuesday to Washington, D.C., where lawmakers have been attempting to craft a bipartisan bill to overhaul the nation’s policing laws.
Congress failed to act by the anniversary of Floyd’s death — the deadline that President Joe Biden had urged lawmakers to meet.
Instead of signing legislation named for Floyd into law on Tuesday, the president met with Floyd’s family members in a private gathering at the White House.
Afterward, Biden said in a statement that he appreciates the “good-faith efforts” from lawmakers of both parties to pass “a meaningful bill,” and that he hopes they will get a measure to his desk quickly.
“We have to act. We face an inflection point,” said Biden, who met with Floyd’s family shortly after his killing last year and has spoken with them by phone several times. “The battle for the soul of America has been a constant push and pull between the American ideal that we’re all created equal and the harsh reality that racism has long torn us apart.”
Philonise Floyd, one of George’s brothers, told reporters after the hour-long meeting with Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris that if the country can make laws to protect the bald eagle, “you can make laws to protect people of color.”
George Floyd was killed at age 46 one year ago, after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee onto Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes outside a convenience store. Floyd’s murder sparked an emotional outcry across the country, with protesters filling the streets as they called for legal changes to policing.
Floyd’s family has found justice in one venue: Chauvin was convicted of unintentional second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
But the broader national policy changes they’ve urged have not yet come.
A session of reform in Maryland
In Maryland, lawmakers passed a series of police reform bills this legislative session to create a statewide use-of-force policy, reform officer discipline, require body-worn cameras, limit search warrants, and alter the Maryland Public Information Act to allow public release of officer misconduct records, among other changes.
Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) vetoed three of the police reform bills, moves that the Democratic majority in the General Assembly quickly overrode.
Lawmakers integral to the statewide police reform package approved this year said Tuesday that they’re proud of the progress that was made, but also believe there are places where the legislature could’ve gone further.
“Are there other things that I think we could have done, and that we still need to do? Absolutely,” said House Judiciary Committee Vice Chair Vanessa E. Atterbeary (D-Howard). “But I think … we didn’t just take a step, we took a huge leap forward in terms of police reform.”
Atterbeary, who chaired Democratic Speaker Adrienne A. Jones’ Workgroup to Address Police Reform and Accountability in Maryland, said that she would have liked to see legislation to create a police misconduct prosecution unit in the state attorney general’s office.
Currently, local state’s attorneys, who often rely on police officers as witnesses, are responsible for taking up misconduct cases.
Instead, the General Assembly passed a bill to create a unit in the attorney general’s office that will investigate police-involved civilian deaths and provide reports to local prosecutors. The job posting for the unit chief went live late last week.
“I think it’s critical that we have that separation,” Atterbeary said. “And so I’m hopeful that we will come back next session and take another look at that.”
Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City), who has pushed reform efforts for years, said the General Assembly “definitely did not go too far” with any reform measure, but applauded the state’s repeal of the LEOBR, specifically.
Initially created in Maryland, the LEOBR provided due process protections for officers during misconduct investigations that could lead to their demotion or termination. Advocates have decried the statute for decades, saying that it creates an opaque officer disciplinary process.
“For many years, the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights was the enemy of policing and police because it served to protect bad cops and it destroyed the integrity of the profession. It also helped to rob the people of having any accountability or any transparency,” Carter said. “So that … was [a] critically important first step in improving public safety by creating integrity and accountability in policing, as a profession.”
Looking ahead, Carter wants the General Assembly to strengthen the police accountability boards created under the 2021 bill that replaced the LEOBR.
“We need to, ultimately, remove the investigation and disciplinary process from inside police agencies and externalize them and give them over to the people to be able to conduct,” she said.
Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery), said lawmakers should also look at other areas that perpetuate inequitable criminal justice systems by expanding mental health initiatives, housing, transportation and addressing education discrimination.
“The hotness is focused in on what we did with reforming police, but I think we all need to keep our eye on the ball that the problem is much bigger than this,” said Smith.
Asked why they think it took so long for Maryland to act to restructure its policing methods, Carter and Smith gave a nod to the sweeping change in leadership seen in both chambers during the last few sessions.
But Carter said that it did, and still does, “trouble” her that reform has taken this long.
“It will never be acceptable that we as a body ignored victims and their families in the hundreds — that we knew of — that testified before us and pled with us for help for years,” she said. “That will never, ever be an acceptable thing, and it will always bother me.”
Carter said that she felt “personal hurt” by the legislature’s willingness to push the issue under the rug for so long.
All three pointed to the wave of national protests after Floyd’s death as the impetus behind this session’s reform effort.
“The murder of George Floyd sparked such a national movement that the need for reform and the urgency of police reform just couldn’t be denied,” said Atterbeary.
Tuesday morning, Smith retweeted an interview of Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
“There are moments in this country when there are photographs that are snapshots of the soul of this country — they almost hold up a mirror to this country,” Ifill said during an appearance on 60 Minutes last year.
Smith said he agrees, referencing several extrajudicial killings of Black people that reach across generations, including Floyd’s murder.
“All these things, thrust to the forefront of the national conversation, are the realities that are all too often ignored by the vast majority of society,” Smith said. “But when you do have these moments … it’s incumbent upon all of us to ensure that we don’t lose the opportunity to make broad-based, systemic change when we have the political will married with the urgency of the moment.”
“It’s a sad indictment on policymaking and society,” he continued, “but it’s not something we haven’t seen before.”
Pressing for change in Washington
In Washington, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives has passed a measure known as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. It would ban the use of chokeholds and make it easier to prosecute officers for wrongdoing. But that bill has not garnered Republican support in the Senate.
Instead, a group of Democrats and Republicans from both chambers has been attempting to hammer out a deal. That group has included Republican Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick, of Pennsylvania, and Pete Stauber, of Minnesota.
After leaving the White House Tuesday afternoon, Floyd’s family members said they were set to meet with two key senators involved in those talks: Sen. Cory Booker, (D-N.J.), and Sen. Tim Scott, (R-S.C.).
One remaining obstacle in negotiations over a policing reform bill is a provision that would limit legal protections known as “qualified immunity” that protect police officers in civil lawsuits.
Earlier in the day, the group of family members — which included Floyd’s daughter Gianna, her mother Roxie Washington and several of his brothers — also gathered with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, (D-Calif.), on Capitol Hill.
During a news conference, Pelosi noted that the family had been to the Capitol when the House was passing its measure, and she repeated an often-cited quote from Gianna that her father “will change the world.”
“Indeed, that change is coming true,” Pelosi said.
Danielle E. Gaines contributed to this report.