A guide to how policing laws in Philly and Pa. changed — or didn’t — after George Floyd’s murder
A jury convicted Derek Chauvin of murdering Floyd, but the national reckoning over police brutality and systemic racism continues.
The police killing of George Floyd last year led to the biggest racial justice movement in generations and prompted lawmakers in Washington and state and local governments across the country to reexamine policing.
Activists called for sweeping changes to law enforcement budgets, policies, and accountability. Some of those ideas informed new laws, while others became fodder for political culture wars.
Here’s a guide to what’s changed — and what hasn’t — in Philadelphia and Harrisburg since Floyd’s death.
Changes in Philadelphia but no defunding
Philadelphia City Council fast-tracked a package of police reform and oversight bills after Floyd’s murder.
The most significant measure led to the creation of a new Citizens Police Oversight Commission, which will replace the Police Advisory Commission and is designed to have more power and resources. The new commission is being set up this year.
Other measures Council passed last year include one that requires public hearings on proposed city police contracts before negotiations with the police union begin and another that codifies the Police Department’s prohibition on officers using choke holds and similar maneuvers.
And lawmakers passed a bill, aimed at making the department more diverse, that requires new officers to have lived in the city for at least one year.
Progressive members of Council last year called for cuts to the police budget, but Mayor Jim Kenney and lawmakers struck a deal that essentially kept department funding flat. Kenney has again proposed flat funding in his budget for the coming fiscal year while allocating additional money for police functions to other departments. And efforts to “defund the police,” meaning to fund social services or other community-focused organizations by reducing the police budget, are finding little traction in City Hall.
Council President Darrell L. Clarke said last week that taking money from the Police Department isn’t a good idea given the city’s gun-violence crisis. “People say that, but then when this violence happens, the first thing that people dial is what? 911,” he said.
Kenney’s administration has staked much of its reform hopes on contract negotiations with the city’s police union. Those negotiations are ongoing, and the current contract expires July 1.
The administration is seeking numerous changes. Those include restoring a rule that required all cops to live in the city, giving the police commissioner greater control over officer transfers, and, most significant, altering the disciplinary process, which has allowed scores of officers accused of wrongdoing to stay on the force or have their punishments lessened.
Those reforms, however, are far from a sure thing thanks to the state-mandated contract arbitration process, which heavily favors public safety unions.
Changes in Harrisburg
Floyd’s murder sparked movement on police reform by the GOP-controlled state legislature, after it allowed Democratic measures to languish for years.
Black state House Democrats took control of the chamber last June to demand action on a number of bills, including ones that would outlaw choke holds and update the state’s use-of-force law.
The legislature ultimately passed two reform bills, including one that requires all law enforcement agencies to consult a new database on disciplinary actions, performance evaluations, and attendance records during employee background checks. That law stops short of making misconduct records available to the public.
Lawmakers also approved a measure that requires the commission overseeing municipal police departments to train officers on how to treat people of “diverse” backgrounds and institute annual training on use-of-force and de-escalation techniques.
The changes didn’t go as far as some Democrats wanted. In a statement after the Chauvin verdict, State Sen. Art Haywood (D., Philadelphia) said the legislature “must change the system to prevent killings like this from happening in the first place” by banning knee holds and limiting police immunity.
Democrats have also long sought changes to Act 111, which governs collective bargaining rights for police officers, to weaken unions’ ability to reinstate officers who are fired for infractions like excessive force.
The idea even won support from some Republicans last year. But the legislature ultimately didn’t take action.
Whether GOP leadership will prioritize these proposals in 2021 remains to be seen. State Sen. Lisa Baker (R., Luzerne), whose Judiciary Committee held hearings on law enforcement last year, said she hopes to do something similar this session. The office of State Rep. Rob Kauffman (R., Franklin), Baker’s counterpart in the House, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
‘One long step’
For Philadelphia activists who rallied for change long before and after Floyd’s murder, much work is left.
”The reforms that we have seen are progress, but ... they always say a journey of 1,000 miles begins with one step,” said Christopher Bowman, a middle-school teacher and founder of I Will Breathe. The last year, he said, was “one long step.”
Bowman lauded pushes for more police accountability, as well as widespread public awareness of racism and police brutality.
”Conversations like this have not happened consistently in a long time,” he said.
Other activists, like Black Lives Matter Philly organizer YahNé Ndgo, say the police system is beyond reform and oppose spending more on it. But conversations around defunding and abolishing police have grown louder and more mainstream, Ndgo said.
Rather than the work of politicians and government, she said, ”the only thing that’s going to get us what we need is the actual continued power of the people in the mobilization.”
Protesters nationwide rallied around calls to “defund the police.” The Black Philly Radical Collective, an activist umbrella group formed last year, has demanded the city immediately cut its police budget by 20%, with the goal of making larger cuts over the course of five years. But those proposals far outstrip anything Kenney and Council leaders have embraced. Clarke has emphasized that police reform itself costs money.
Defund advocates say their goal is less about ending policing — with its history of violence against Black people — and more about redistributing resources and reimagining public safety.
“There are more and more people who are engaging in work that would transform our communities into communities where safety is in the hands of the community,” Ndgo said, “and not something where you have nothing else that you can do but turn to police.”
Angela Couloumbis and Sarah Anne Hughes of Spotlight PA contributed to this article.