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After protests, politicians reconsider police budgets and discipline

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Charles E. Schemer joined other Democrats to announce police reform legislation Monday in Washington.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Charles E. Schemer joined other Democrats to announce police reform legislation Monday in Washington.AFP via Getty Images

MINNEAPOLIS — In New York, the mayor vowed to cut the budget of the nation’s largest police force. In Los Angeles, the mayor called for redirecting millions of dollars from policing after protesters gathered outside his home. And in Minneapolis, City Council members pledged to dismantle their police force and completely reinvent how public safety is handled.

As tens of thousands of people have demonstrated against police violence over the past two weeks, calls have emerged in cities across the country for fundamental changes to American policing.

The pleas for change have taken a variety of forms — including measures to restrict police use of military-style equipment and efforts to require officers to face strict discipline in cases of misconduct. Parks, universities, and schools have distanced themselves from local police departments, severing contracts. In some places, the calls for change have gone still further, aiming to abolish police departments, shift police funds into social services, or defund police departments partly or entirely.

“It is a critical time that we can see concrete change,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who last week addressed the crowd gathered for a memorial service for George Floyd, the Black man who died after a white police officer pressed his knee into his neck for nearly nine minutes in Minneapolis last month.

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Democrats in Congress on Monday unveiled legislation aimed at ending excessive use of force by police and making it easier to identify, track, and prosecute police misconduct. The measures were seen as the most expansive intervention into policing that federal lawmakers have proposed in recent memory.

The legislation would curtail protections that shield police officers accused of misconduct from being prosecuted and would set restrictions aimed at barring officers from using deadly force except as a last resort. The fate of the measures was far from certain; they were expected to pass swiftly in the Democratic-led House, but President Trump and Republican lawmakers have yet to signal what measures, if any, they would accept. The legislation under consideration does not contemplate defunding police departments and falls short of what many protesters have demanded.

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For his part, Trump on Monday dismissed proposals to remove funds from police departments. “We won’t be defunding our police,” he said. “We won’t be dismantling our police.”

Former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, “does not believe that police should be defunded,” a campaign spokesman said Monday, adding that Biden “supports the urgent need for reform” as well as financial support for community policing programs.

Around the country, city and state leaders were weighing overhauls of their policing policies, aware of the delicate balance of voters’ concerns about crime versus their repulsion at police brutality.

In Albany, New York state lawmakers Monday began passing a wide-ranging package of bills targeting police misconduct, overcoming deep-seated opposition from law enforcement unions. The measures, many of which have languished for years, include a ban on the use of chokeholds as well as the repeal of a decades-old statute that has effectively hidden the disciplinary records of police officers from public view.

Last week, a City Council budget meeting in Nashville stretched on for more than eight hours, coming to a close well after midnight as residents organized by a coalition of community groups lined up to demand that the police budget be cut.

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The idea of removing money from police forces, once largely put forth for years by academics and advocacy groups, appeared to be shifting into the spotlight, as activists and elected officials in cities like Nashville; Portland, Ore.; and Denver weighed the possibility.

“This is totally new,” said Stacie Gilmore, a City Council member for a largely Latino and Black district in Denver who had received 2,500 e-mails in the past three days demanding the city defund the police. “We’re always scrambling to get enough resources. Our police department by default serves as social worker, therapist, family counselor, career counselor. We don’t need the police to do that job anymore. It’s not working for communities of color.”

Late last week, after several days of protests, Mayor Ted Wheeler of Portland announced an end to school resource officers, freeing up $1 million to be used elsewhere with community input, according to Tim Becker, a spokesman for the mayor.

Around the country, the calls from activists and other leaders for defunding police departments have taken on different meanings in different places. Most pleas for defunding the police do not signal a wish to end efforts at public safety. Rather, officials say they want to stop spending millions of dollars on certain items for police, such as military-style equipment. Some proposals seek to trim the number of officers, a prospect that could force a debate over union contracts.

The end goal, advocates say, is to put an end to horrific scenes like the death of Floyd in Minneapolis.

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In that city, council members took a first major step toward dismantling its police force Sunday when nine of them, a veto-proof majority, pledged to revamp policing. Specifics were uncertain, but council members promised to listen to concerns from community groups and cautioned changes would take time.

“We’re reclaiming the conversation of public safety, and we’re saying, ‘It doesn’t have to be fear-based; it doesn’t have to be punishment-based,’ ” said Alondra Cano, a council member.

Other lawmakers and leaders say defunding police departments could have unintended consequences. Some people worry about safety if fewer armed officers are on patrol, especially in summer months when crime rates tend to spike.

In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti last week agreed to redirect $150 million from the Police Department’s nearly $2 billion budget and other city programs to health and education programs among others. The move came after calls from members of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles and the City Council.

At the federal level, the legislation now proposed in Congress by House and Senate Democrats would amend the federal criminal code to make it easier to prosecute police officers for misconduct. Prosecutors now must prove that an officer “willfully” violated an individual’s constitutional rights; the bill would lower that standard, to actions undertaken with “reckless disregard” for the individual’s rights.

It would also create a national registry to track police misconduct and require law enforcement agencies to report data on the use of force.

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The legislation closely aligns with reforms proposed by former vice president Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, who called on Congress last week to ban police chokeholds and pledged that his administration would create a national police oversight commission and a new standard for use of force. Both measures are included in Democrats’ legislation unveiled Monday, including one requiring law enforcement to use deadly force only as a last resort after employing a series of deescalation tactics.

Among other reforms, the legislation would also require all uniformed federal officers to wear body cameras and mandate that state and local agencies use federal funds to “ensure” their use. It would also condition some federal grants on the adoption of anti-discrimination training and practices.

Democratic leaders also hope the legislation can serve as a final push to designate lynching as a federal crime. Efforts to pass a standalone bill to do so have been blocked by Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, who has sought to narrow the bill’s definition of lynching, arguing that the measure’s language is overly broad and could lead to excessive sentencing.