Can federal legislation help stop police violence?

We discuss legislation proposed in response to public pressure after the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other Black and Brown people. 

By Peniel Ibe, Mary Zerkel

Photo: Carl Roose/AFSC

After the police murder of George Floyd, tens of millions of people across the U.S. joined with organizing efforts to stop police violence, end white supremacy, and defund the police—emerging as the largest social justice movement in U.S. history. 

In response to public pressure, Congress introduced the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which has already passed in the House but has yet to be introduced in the Senate. 

The Movement for Black Lives opposes the Justice in Policing Act, arguing it further entrenches reform strategies that have historically failed to address police violence. The Movement has created a counterproposal known as The BREATHE Act, which could fundamentally shift how we envision community-care and invest in our society. 

AFSC's Peniel Ibe and Mary Zerkel discuss both pieces of legislation and whether they can transform community safety by reducing the role of the police.

The limitations of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act (JPA) 

Rally for racial justice in Iowa. Photo: Jon Krieg/AFSC

If signed into law, the Justice in Policing Act would:

  • Prohibit federal funds to states and localities that don't ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants while banning the use of such tactics by federal law enforcement officers. 
  • Change the federal use of force standard to only when necessary, instead of "reasonableness."
  • End qualified immunity for some local and federal law enforcement officers but not all and add data transparency provisions. 
  • Creates oversight and limiting the transfer of military equipment from the department of defense to state and local police entities but doesn't end the program.

Mary: Derecka Purnell, social movement lawyer and author, wrote an analysis that pointed out that even though the bill is named for George Floyd, it wouldn't have saved his life. During the monthlong Chauvin trial, at least 64 people were killed by the police nationwide, an average of three per day. Just hours before the start of the Chauvin trial on March 19, Chicago Police murdered a 13-year-old boy named Adam Toledo, who had his hands up in the air when the police shot him in the chest, and the city is full of grief and rage once again. We need transformative change. I worry that this bill will only expand policing in the name of reform. 

This legislation amounts to "policing the police," assuming they can regulate themselves and hold themselves accountable. Often these kinds of reforms don't stop deaths at the hands of police. Chokehold bans in multiple cities haven't prevented deaths by this method. With any of these reforms, we will still be relying upon the police to respect those limits. In Chicago, Minneapolis, and many other communities, the call has been to divest from policing and invest in community needs.

Peniel: It is challenging to see how this bill can create real change. Policing and its funding sources in the United States are generally regulated by state and local government, so most changes must happen at that level. Congress, though, can withhold federal grant funding to demand accountability and changes from law enforcement agencies. 

But relying on funding incentives to spur change is misguided. It ties the effectiveness of this bill to the same funding schemes that fueled mass policing, criminalization, and incarceration of Black and Brown people. The JPA does not defund the police. Instead, it entrenches $1 billion into incrementalist reforms that have already been tried and failed in multiple U.S. cities- increasing the budgets of state and local law enforcement agencies.  

Mary: Cities in the U.S collectively already spend $100 billion a year on policing, diverting billions of dollars from schools, health care, and other vital programs that need more funding to strengthen our communities. In Chicago, for example, we spend nearly $5 million per day on policing while we've shuttered 54 public schools and six mental health clinics in predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods. 


The difference between reform and transformation

Vigil for young people killed by police in Chicago. Photo: Mary Zerkel/AFSC

Peniel: We literally cannot afford to continue spending resources on a deadly system. As advocates called on elected officials to defund the police, Critical Resistance developed a tool to measure whether proposed solutions are either "reformist reforms" or "abolitionist" steps in transforming policing. 

Mary: I've learned a lot from that Critical Resistance rubric—if a policy does not:

  • reduce funding to police;
  • challenge the notion that the police increase safety;
  • reduce tools/tactics/technology that police have at their disposal; 
  • Or reduce the scale of policing, 

then such a policy is reformist. It sounds like the George Floyd act is a series of reformist reforms. 

Peniel: Yes. This bill would not have saved the lives of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor. It might get their families an opportunity to sue and charge the police officers who killed their loved ones by relying on a legal system set up to disenfranchise communities of color who need justice. But suing individual officers will not fix a flawed system. True justice would be George Floyd and Breonna Taylor still being alive. 

Mary: So, by the Critical resistance standards, the Justice in Policing Act is lacking, performative, and in direct opposition to the demands of the communities. The reality is that there is no justice in policing.  


The BREATHE Act: A new vision for community safety

March in Washington, D.C. Photo: Carl Roose/AFSC.

Peniel: We need policy solutions that center the needs of Black and Brown people who have been the most harmed by police violence, like the BREATHE Act, championed by the Movement for Black Lives.

Mary: Yes, this is a piece of legislation that is expansive and visionary. Looking at this bill, we begin to see policy solutions that mirror the needs of impacted communities. The BREATHE Act takes a holistic approach to community safety, centering Black people's lives rather than justifying the existence of policing infrastructure. 

The Breathe Act:

  • Divests federal resources from incarceration and policing;
  • invests in new approaches to community safety utilizing funding incentives;
  • allocates new money to build healthy, sustainable & equitable communities;
  • holds political leaders accountable, and  
  • enhances the self-determination of Black Communities.

These things are necessary if we are to build up communities that have faced decades of disinvestment and criminalization. 

Peniel: Exactly, the bill's approach to addressing policing aligns with the Critical Resistance model. It does not expand the scope of policing at all; it reduces it while at the same time funding crucial needs in the community and creates mechanisms for government accountability and self-determination for Black communities. This bill is not a reformist reform. It moves us more toward real transformation. 


How you can get involved

Sign up for our webinar on May 11: Join our online conversation to learn more about the BREATHE Act and Justice in Policing Act. The webinar is monthly webinar series on Community Safety Beyond Policing. 

Take action online. Tell Congress: Divest from policing and invest in our communities!