Two years have passed since George Floyd’s murder. Two years since Americans learned his name. Two years since millions took to the streets in every corner of this nation to demand change from systems of government and law enforcement that continue to brush Black lives aside.
Sadly, many reasonable demands remain unmet. Many calls to bend our arc toward justice have gone unanswered. The inertia has proved too strong, too familiar, too time-honored for policymakers to muster the will to break it.
To be sure, we have witnessed heartening moments that suggest things today are not exactly as they were before. Derek Chauvin, the white man who used the combined weight of his body and his badge to suffocate Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, was convicted of murder last year. And the three former officers who had watched Chauvin kill Floyd were convicted this year. That kind of individual accountability has been rare in the history of U.S. policing.
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The convictions imply progress has been made. But we cannot count on the spotlight of nationwide outrage to bring accountability each time the government’s law enforcers err egregiously.
Too many people of color, especially Black men, still find themselves face to face with police who are primed with fear and empowered to kill. Far too often these encounters lead to tragic and unjust outcomes.
Our policing problems cannot be attributed entirely to individual bad actors. The injustice is far too routine, too embedded. Which is why holding officials accountable for their actions, as we must, isn’t enough. We must also tackle systemic problems.
Meaningful change in short supply
Many state lawmakers immediately recognized the need for systemic reform. Within weeks of Floyd’s death, a flurry of legislative activity sought to improve police oversight and better regulate use of force, including by imposing chokehold bans. States have enacted more than 500 bills related to policing in the past two years. Some of those new laws – such as Colorado’s Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Act – seem especially promising.
On the federal level, however, change has been harder to come by. One of the most significant federal policy responses is still an executive order on “safe policing for safe communities” that President Donald Trump issued less than a month after Floyd’s murder. The impact of that limited order has been minimal, though some have said that it could make future policy changes easier.
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Congressional efforts to enact broader reforms have fizzled. Democrats introduced the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020, a wide-ranging package that would have strengthened accountability for law enforcement. Republicans countered with a narrower proposal. Both bills failed in 2020. Democrats tried again in 2021, but bipartisan negotiations in the Senate fell apart in September.
This is the context in which President Joe Biden is expected to issue a broad executive order Wednesday to enact reforms without Congress. His administration has been drafting the order since last year, and he had been expected to release the order months ago.
When an 18-page draft of the executive order leaked in January, it drew alarm and outrage from policing groups. That prompted the White House to moderate its course and seek more input from law enforcement. We recognize that police leaders are key stakeholders in this discussion, so their good-faith feedback should not be disregarded. At the same time, we hope these leaders recognize that the medicine we need may taste bitter.
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The final version of Biden’s executive order will tell federal agencies to rework their use of force policies, incentivize state and local police to restrict use of chokeholds and no-knock warrants, and limit the transfer of most military equipment to police, according to The New York Times. The order will also reportedly establish a national registry that tracks police officers who have been fired for misconduct.
Biden is expected to sign the order alongside police officials and Floyd’s relatives.
This injustice has deep roots
Floyd died two years ago, but the forces that enabled his murder have been in motion for centuries. Our nation, despite strides toward justice in recent decades, has never sufficiently protected Black lives from terror and abuse. Far too often, the abuse has come from officers of the state.
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So when demonstrators took to the streets in 2020, they weren’t marching because the injustice they saw in clear cellphone video was atypical. They were marching because they saw an injustice that is all too typical. With that in mind, we must insist on broad reforms that reshape the way police approach the communities they serve. We owe that to Floyd.
To be clear, Biden’s executive order cannot finish the job. For one, its directives apply to federal law enforcement, so it will only indirectly affect state and local agencies.
What’s more, certain problems – including the overbroad application of qualified immunity to shield police from civil liability when they violate people’s rights – will require legislative fixes. The leaked draft executive order acknowledged that reality.
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We know reform won’t be easy. Disagreement over how to handle the doctrine of qualified immunity was one of the sticking points that contributed to the policing reform impasse on Capitol Hill.
But we also believe there is enough common ground and good faith on these issues to make meaningful change. We owe that to George Floyd.
This editorial is part of a series by USA TODAY Opinion about police accountability and building safer communities. The project began in 2021 by examining qualified immunity and continues in 2022 by examining various ways to improve law enforcement. The project is made possible in part by a grant from Stand Together, which does not provide editorial input.