What does police reform look like in 2020?

From budget cuts to increases in police oversight, change is happening.

The killing of George Floyd by four police officers in Minneapolis has prompted an unprecedented wave of protests in the U.S. — not because his death was particularly unique, but because it wasn’t.

Floyd was the latest in a long line of high-profile victims of police misconduct, in a system that provides too little accountability for police officers. Many Americans were fed up.

Five months later, the calls for police reform have resulted in actual change in some parts of the nation. Here’s an update on where these stand.

Defunding the Police

Some police reform advocates have called for cutting departments’ budgets, mainly so the money can be redirected to other programs designed to increase public safety.

It’s hard to say if this approach will actually help address the problem of police misconduct — police use of excessive force didn’t decrease in Memphis or Chicago after those cities cut their budgets — but some cities are trimming their budgets this year, although not by a lot.

It’s a positive that we were able to prevent budget increases, but it’s not what we were looking for.

Scott Roberts

The Seattle City Council, for example, approved a cut to the police department that amounts to less than 1% of the previous year’s budget. Advocates of defunding on the council initially announced cuts closer to 50% but ultimately backed down.

Minneapolis, where the push to defund the police began, has shelved plans to cut its police force. In the face of rising crime (and limited public support), some councilors who voted to “disband” the department earlier in the summer have suggested putting more resources into the police.

A couple of cities, including Austin, have approved more significant changes — it cut about 5% of its police budget, with plans to ultimately decrease funding by about a third.

Others haven’t decreased funding, but they have deferred increases — a minor victory for police reform advocates pushing to reprioritize spending.

“It’s a positive that we were able to prevent increases in budgets,” Scott Roberts, who leads racial justice organization Color of Change’s criminal justice efforts, told AP. “But it’s not what we were looking for.”

Enacting Police Reform

Still, other major cities have ignored calls for defunding altogether, approving plans to give more money to their police departments in the wake of Floyd’s death.

So the impact of the protests on police budgets has been decidedly mixed, so far. However, the protests have led to a number of policy changes throughout the nation.

Various cities have enacted bans on chokeholds, neck restraints, and tear gas, while others are increasing the mandatory use of body cameras.

Colorado has even passed a landmark police reform bill that does away with the legal defense qualified immunity, which previously protected police from civil rights lawsuits.

Calls for police reform appear to be influencing police oversight in a significant way, too, and that impact could be even more profound after the November election.

More Police Oversight

Prior to 2020, most of the 100 largest U.S. cities already had police oversight bodies in place.

These groups of citizens are tasked with essentially policing the police on behalf of their community — they may review claims of police misconduct, make discipline recommendations, or suggest policy changes designed to avoid misconduct in the first place.

Police reform has meant bans on chokeholds, neck restraints, and tear gas in some cities.

Only 6 of those 100 cities give their police oversight groups the power to actually do anything, though.

In November, Americans will vote on an unprecedented number of ballot measures relating to police oversight, either establishing new committees or increasing authority for ones already in place.

“This definitely stands out as a year where there’s more measures like this than we’ve seen in a given year before,” Josh Altic, a spokesperson for Ballotpedia, told Smart Cities Dive.

We’d love to hear from you! If you have a comment about this article or if you have a tip for a future Freethink story, please email us at [email protected].

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