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Some bold local police reform efforts follow Floyd’s death, but change at national level remains elusive

Protesters kneeled in front of New York City Police Department officers before being arrested for violating curfew beside the iconic Plaza Hotel on 59th Street on June 3, 2020 in New York.John Minchillo/AP/file

Nearly a year after a policeman killed George Floyd outside a convenience store in Minneapolis, sparking a vast social protest movement and calls to radically rethink the role of police in society, a scenic, wooded city in central New York is doing just that.

In March, Ithaca, home to about 30,000 people and Cornell University, approved a plan to replace its 63-officer police force with an entirely new agency bearing a friendly new name seemingly designed to repel all associations to police brutality. By next year, the “Community Solutions and Public Safety Department” could become the first public safety entity in the country largely made up of public servants who will not carry guns. They will answer non-emergency calls — including minor infractions and welfare and mental health checks — while a second group of armed officers will respond to more serious or life-threatening reports.


The new agency won’t be headed by a police chief but a superintendent, who won’t necessarily have to have been in law enforcement to take on the job.

“Ithaca — this is what is coming next in policing,” said Phillip Atiba Goff, a Yale University professor and cofounder of the Center for Police Equity, which worked with the Ithaca mayor’s office, the police department, and community advocates to make it happen.

The effort in Ithaca is one of many examples of states and cities tackling criminal justice reforms and rethinking policing in the year after Floyd’s death, which incited calls in many communities to “defund the police” and what some scholars believe was the largest wave of social justice protests in the history of the United States.

Scholars, academics, and law enforcement officials see signs of progress in the changes in Ithaca and other cities, many of which have arisen from proposals that have been around for decades and have included rewriting use of force and transparency rules. There has also long been a call by some to divert funds from law enforcement agencies to other areas, such as housing, education, and fighting homelessness.


The Ithaca Police Department headquarters in Ithaca, N.Y. John Munson/Associated Press/file

But even as some cities like Ithaca embrace entirely new models of reform, sweeping changes on the national level have been elusive. Some of the most ambitious plans have stalled in state legislatures and in Congress; and some worry that a recent spike in crime rates could lead to a return to old norms and a hesitancy to reimagine public safety going forward.

“It has been a difficult year for a lot of people in this country, and fear has a way of making people reject change and reject progress,” said Christy Lopez, a former deputy chief in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division who led the investigation of police abuses in Ferguson, Mo., after a white police officer shot and killed a Black teenager, Michael Brown, in 2014.

Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, praised the “real change in attitudes in legislatures and city councils, but also around the kitchen table over questions of race and the way we police communities of color.”

But, he acknowledged, “We are at a very fragile moment.”

For Lopez, Smith, and others long pushing for reform, it’s also a familiar moment. Efforts to overhaul police practices stretch at least as far back as the 1960s. Most recently, Brown’s killing in 2014 and the protests it sparked in Ferguson spurred the Missouri governor to enact the independent Ferguson Commission to study the factors that impeded progress, safety, and equality in the St. Louis region. Former President Barack Obama, in response to the social unrest, convened a task force charged with envisioning a roadmap to improve policing.


Police waited to advance after tear gas was used to disperse a crowd during a protest for Michael Brown, who was killed by a police officer Aug. 9, 2014 in Ferguson, Mo. Charlie Riedel/Associated Press/file

The group — made up of law enforcement and police union leaders, scholars, and civil rights advocates — released a set of recommendations to improve transparency and public trust, including calls to change police culture, increase accountability, and promote community-based initiatives to address core issues like poverty, education, and mental health. Even some task force members like Tracey Meares, a Yale University professor, saw them as relatively modest first steps, the “low-hanging fruit.”

Progress toward such changes tended to continue only in the cities and counties where the political will to take on the status quo existed. Certainly, the impetus wasn’t going to come from the Trump administration which largely retreated from the business of regulating and monitoring law enforcement agencies; the president himself suggested he did not see police accountability as a high priority. But now Trump is gone, and the protest movement following the killings of Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a Black emergency room technician killed by police in her apartment, has drastically changed the conversation, with advocates reaching for far more sweeping changes than the ones they called for after Ferguson. Those include reforms beyond policing to address root causes of crime like lack of access to food, employment, and housing.


Black Lives Matter is seen along East Green Street in Ithaca, N.Y. The city has approved a plan that will replace its 63-officer police force with an entirely new agency.John Munson/Associated Press

With a decentralized policing system in the US that includes about 18,000 federal, state, and local agencies, the extent of recent reforms is varied and difficult to quantify. In some places, city and county officials and advocates have sought to altogether reshape their police forces and add independent civilian oversight boards. Others have simply tried to orient officers toward working closer with community-led groups and social service providers. Some police departments have implemented their own changes: A Washington Post review found at least 32 of the country’s 65 largest agencies have, for example, banned or tightened their restrictions on using chokeholds.

Floyd’s killing last May sparked dozens of police reform initiatives to be introduced across the country, though not all have become reality in the year since. Still, new data from the National Conference of State Legislatures show at least 20 states enacted more than 50 pieces of legislation in 2020 related to police oversight, training, use of force, and policing alternatives.

Many sought to boost instruction for officers on how to de-escalate situations, removed officers from schools, and introduced new models for responding to mental health calls. Overall, experts said, there has been something of a cultural shift in the way lawmakers and the public see police. Many now believe police should no longer be the first responders to non-emergency situations, and there is a greater awareness that putting more officers on the streets doesn’t necessarily reduce crime, and can put people, particularly Black people and people of color, at greater risk.


“Many people are recognizing that the police aren’t especially effective at their main job, which is keeping communities safe,” said Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor and Georgetown University law professor. “Most people who are the victims of a crime choose not to call the police, and when they do call the police, the police don’t solve most crimes, so as a response to that evidence many citizens are asking what would work better.”

More than a dozen major cities have taken the dramatic step of diverting funding away from their police departments. The most sweeping of cuts occurred in Austin, Texas, where city officials reduced the Austin Police Department budget by a third, or roughly $150 million. Much of the money was reinvested in social programs, violence prevention, and other initiatives. But more than half of it was merely reshuffled; the forensics lab, for example, was moved away from the police to an independent entity.

Other major police departments saw their budgets increase or stay the same — and in some cities and counties there have been no efforts for any kind of reforms at all.

At the federal level, President Biden’s Justice Department has reversed the Trump administration’s hands-off approach. Discussions have been revived over the creation of a national set of standards for police agencies, and Attorney General Merrick Garland in April overturned limits set by the Trump administration on court-enforced reform plans known as consent decrees, which served as crucial compliance hammers for the Department of Justice in police investigations.

Still, Biden has yet to make good on a campaign promise to establish a police oversight commission, and federal legislation — dubbed the “George Floyd Justice in Policing Act” — to lower the standard to be able to convict law enforcement officers for misconduct, limit their protections from civil lawsuits, and create a framework to prevent chokeholds has been stymied in the Senate.

Recent crime numbers could make upcoming pushes for reform in Congress and in cities and states more difficult, experts said. Major US cities saw a 33 percent increase in homicides in 2020 compared to 2019, the largest spike in a single year in more than 50 years, according to a report released in January by the Major Cities Chiefs Association. Some cities like Chicago and Boston saw increases of almost 40 percent, though, in Boston, the spike came after a year with an exceptionally low murder tally.

Homicides and gun violence have been rising in most cities since 2015 after years of hitting all-time lows. But the unprecedented jump in 2020 in cities large and small appears to have been accelerated by the pandemic — which reduced the number of officers responding to calls and disrupted social work and crime prevention programs — as well as the summer’s social unrest, which shattered public confidence in law enforcement, dampened morale, and led to struggles in recruiting new officers.

Another factor that could complicate future reform efforts: public opinion. Shortly after Floyd’s killing, support for the Black Lives Matter movement swelled among white people for the first time to a historic high, although it did not reach a majority in most polls. But that burst of support appears to have fallen back to baseline. One recent USA Today/Ipsos poll found support for the Black Lives Matter movement has decreased, as trust in US law enforcement’s ability to promote justice equitably has risen.

Another from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research released Friday found Americans were more likely to believe that police violence is a serious problem than before Floyd was killed, but few thought the focus on the issue was leading to lasting change.

“I don’t think anyone expected there would be an immediate reduction or change, but this isn’t a new issue, and the fact that high-profile cases come and go and police killings remain consistent is concerning,” Butler said.

The jury is still out over the changes in Ithaca, where the police union fought to ensure current officers wouldn’t have to reapply for their jobs and some activists have seen the plan as a watered-down version of their calls to defund or reimagine police last summer.

But city, county, police, and community leaders are working closely on implementation — drafting new job descriptions, figuring out charters, and throwing out new names for the agency. Details like whether the unarmed officers will wear uniforms, as well as the numerical split between the armed and unarmed wings of the new agency, are still in the works. For now, the city will run a pilot program to start testing out the system.

City leaders had been preparing for the police union to sue the city over the plan. But on the Monday before the vote of approval, the union wasn’t as adversarial as they had feared, releasing a statement summing up only the parts of the proposal that it endorsed and keeping quiet on those it did not. Now other jurisdictions might be following suit. Brooklyn Center in Minnesota just this week passed its own plan for a similar overhaul.

“We are unlikely to get another police union to endorse the dissolving of their own police department, but it is a powerful example of what is possible,” Goff said.