The George Floyd Killing Exposes the Failures of Police Reform


As protests over the police killing of George Floyd engulfed Minneapolis for a third night on Thursday, and solidarity protests broke out in cities across the country, there was both a sense that the country had been through this before — too many times — and that the stakes had begun to shift.

In the Twin Cities, where Floyd’s killing at the hands of officer Derek Chauvin was just the latest in a series of high-profile police killings in the last five years, those who took to the streets in the middle of a coronavirus pandemic were tired and exasperated. Years of misconduct and brutality by local police had brought many protests and much talk of reform. But Floyd’s death was an urgent reminder that here, as across the country, police reform had failed, and that the time had come for something different.

“They call for training, but are they doing the training, and is the training being internalized?” said Moriah Stephens, a special education teacher, as she stood near a highway overpass in St. Louis Park, the suburb where Floyd had lived, waving as passing cars honked in support. “I can tell you 50 times over that my life matters and I would like you to speak out about the fact that my life matters, and you can hear me say that 50 times, but are you going to do it?”

“I’m tired of being angry, and I’m tired of being tired, and I’m tired of seeing new hashtags,” she added, referring to a recent wave of police killings and other racist incidents across the country. “I’m lucky I’m alive. I can stand here. I can shout. There’s part of me that’s like, I need to use what I have — I have my life and I need to use it, but I’m also tired of doing that.”

Stephens, who had joined protests after the police killings of Philando Castile in a Minneapolis suburb in 2016, said her father was currently undergoing chemotherapy treatment. She was reluctant to go out in the middle of a Covid-19 outbreak that had already taken nearly 1,000 lives in Minnesota, and like many protesters was wearing a mask and standing at a distance from others. “I’m not supposed to be around people. But that’s where I’m at.”

In Floyd’s neighborhood, the signs people carried recalled protests following earlier police killings while also raising new demands. They said “I can’t breathe” — George Floyd’s last words as Chauvin kneeled on his neck for more than seven minutes, but also the last words of Eric Garner, who was killed six years ago by a New York police officer, igniting a movement against police violence of which Floyd’s death is just the latest chapter. After Garner’s death, as after the death of Michael Brown the same year in Ferguson, Missouri, and those of scores of other black men and women killed by police since then, protesters called for the officers to be held accountable. But there were new calls at Thursday’s protests — such as “Fund Community Not Police” — that tapped into a more recent and growing movement demanding not so much police reform and accountability as abolition, through the defunding of police departments.

“In the wake of George Floyd’s murder by MPD officer Derek Chauvin, and the Minneapolis Police Department’s escalated violence against the city’s grieving Black community, Minneapolis is in desperate need of visionary leadership,” the Minneapolis group Reclaim the Block wrote in a statement calling on the city council to defund the police department. “Now is the time to invest in a safe, liberated future for our city. We can’t afford to keep funding MPD’s attacks on Black lives.”

There were signs some local leaders were starting to see it the same way. Under pressure from students, the University of Minnesota announced this week that it would scale back its contract with the Minneapolis Police Department. The University of Minnesota was the first public institution to cut ties with MPD after the killing of George Floyd. On Friday afternoon, Minneapolis public schools board members issued a resolution to terminate the school district’s contract with the Minneapolis Police Department. And protesters called for more action to curtail the role of police altogether.

“The system is not broken. It’s doing exactly what it was designed to do; that’s what people need to wrap their heads around,” said Imani Jackson, who grew up in St. Louis Park. “We need to create an entire new one.”

Reform Is Not the Answer

In the hours immediately after Floyd’s death, it was clear that the national conversation around police violence, set in motion by the killings of Brown and Garner in 2014, had finally begun to change. Chauvin, as well as three officers who had stood by without intervening as he killed Floyd, were promptly fired. Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, who took the helm of the department three years ago following backlash over another police killing, called for an FBI investigation. Mayor Jacob Frey called for the officers to be charged. On Friday, Chauvin was arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter — a charge that means the officer had no intent to kill and left some protesters disappointed.

“People weren’t having it no more,” said Sam Martinez, an organizer with the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice 4 Jamar. “The system knew that.”

A number of law enforcement and elected officials across the country also quickly denounced the Minneapolis officers’ actions — public criticism that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

In New York City, where Floyd’s death carried echoes of Eric Garner’s and where at least 72 protesters were arrested last night in a solidarity demonstration, Police Commissioner Dermot Shea and Mayor Bill de Blasio took to Twitter to condemn Floyd’s killing. “What we saw in Minnesota was deeply disturbing. It was wrong,” tweeted Shea. “This is not acceptable ANYWHERE.” “I am horrified,” tweeted de Blasio. “George Floyd was murdered in broad daylight and the man who killed him was a police officer.”

De Blasio’s and Shea’s comments stood in stark contrast with their defense of Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who killed Garner. Pantaleo was fired last summer, five years after Garner’s death.

“It took him five years to take any action in the Eric Garner case, and now he wants immediate action in Minneapolis,” said Alex Vitale, who runs the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College, echoing widespread criticism of de Blasio’s statement.

Even the National Fraternal Order of Police, the largest police union in the country and a staunch defender of officers involved in killings of unarmed people in the past, released a statement criticizing the Minneapolis officers’ actions. “Based on the by-stander’s video from this incident, we witnessed a man in distress pleading for help,” the group wrote in a statement that was soon echoed by many local chapters of the union. “There is no doubt that this incident has diminished the trust and respect our communities have for the men and women of law enforcement.”
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey fired four police officers following the killing of George Floyd in their custody. Photo: Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty Images

But critics warned that the public condemnations, including by law enforcement, were more a matter of political expediency than anything else. “I think that is politically convenient for all of them,” said Kandace Montgomery, director of Black Visions Collective, a Minnesota-based racial justice group, which is affiliated with Reclaim the Block and the Movement for Black Lives. “Until they actually offer real solutions and offer real policies that address the inherent violence of police departments, it’s all talk.”

“That’s all well and good, but it means nothing to me until they actually start making concrete changes in how they do business in their police department,” echoed Neill Franklin, a retired police major and the executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership. Franklin pointed to the long history of complaints of abuse and excessive force filed against the officers responsible for Floyd’s death — and to the fact that reports of police misconduct, nationwide, are kept from public view largely because of union contracts that protect officers no matter their conduct.

“There are police chiefs who are now voicing their disgust about what happened in Minneapolis. Well, how about you now move to make these personnel records public?” said Franklin. “If you really are concerned as a police leader in what’s happening, not just with Mr. Floyd, but case after case, rework the union contracts. … We need to change these laws so that we have the ability to take swift action.”

But while calling for greater transparency — including a national database tracking officers terminated for misconduct so they wouldn’t just move from department to department — Franklin acknowledged efforts to reform police had largely fallen short.

“Reform is not the answer, we’ve been trying it for decades, and as you can see, we’re just not getting anywhere,” he said. “We need a new paradigm of policing in the United States. It needs to be completely dismantled and reconstructed, not changing a policy here or there.”

“We are still working with a model of policing in this country that was born out of slavery in this country, that was born out of a white supremacy in this country,” he added. “That’s why reform won’t work and that’s why we haven’t made any traction whatsoever on this issue of race, as we’ve seen with the death of Mr. Floyd.”

In fact, the swift condemnation of the Minneapolis officers was largely a testament to the deep crisis policing has been facing for years. That crisis was only exacerbated by the current health and economic emergency, which has left communities reeling and feeling that their government, across institutions, has failed them in unprecedented ways.

“Police have realized that their basic legitimacy is being challenged here, and they had better figure out some way to get out from under this,” said Vitale, who wrote a book that has both anticipated and informed the growing national movement to defund police. “So if that means throwing a few individual officers under the bus, they are happy to do that.”

The reluctance of prosecutors to charge the officers responsible for Floyd’s killing was yet another sign of how little has changed. “There is other evidence that doesn’t support a criminal charge,” said County Attorney Mike Freeman, who compared Floyd’s death to that of Freddie Gray, who died in the custody of Baltimore police in 2015 — a rare case in which the officers involved were charged with murder 12 days after the incident. That prosecution was ultimately unsuccessful. “It was a rush to charge, it was a rush to justice,” Freeman said of Gray’s case, despite the fact that Floyd’s death, unlike Gray’s, was clearly caught on camera.

“When it’s the average citizen who gets arrested and charged for something, the arrest is made immediately as soon as you have probable cause for an arrest,” noted Franklin, the retired cop.

In Ferguson, the top prosecutor’s refusal to charge officer Darren Wilson in 2014 led to weeks of protests as a grand jury sifted through evidence in the case before declining to bring charges. In Minneapolis, it took three days of protests for Chauvin to be arrested and charged. Some protesters set several buildings on fire, including the Third Precinct headquarters, where Chauvin worked. And as they did after protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, police responded to protests of Floyd’s death with tear gas and rubber bullets, at one point spraying tear gas out of a moving vehicle onto an apparently peaceful crowd. Several protesters, as well as some journalists, were arrested. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz mobilized the National Guard, and after Chauvin was arrested, Frey set an 8 p.m. curfew for the weekend. President Donald Trump, as Barack Obama did after Freddie Gray’s killing in Baltimore, called protesters who looted stores “thugs” — though unlike Obama, Trump also called for them to be shot.

In fact, Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson ushered in an era of police reform that saw federal and local governments invest heavily in police training, including on racial bias, and in technology like body cameras that officials promised would bring about accountability. Floyd’s death was yet another reminder that those reforms have failed.
Police face off with demonstrators outside the police station as protests continue in the wake of the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown on Oct. 22, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

“This is happening after five years of being told, ‘Don’t worry, we’re getting the training,’” said Vitale. “The de-escalation training, the anti-bias training, the mindfulness training … why aren’t things getting any better?”

As evidence mounts of the failures of police reform, some departments and unions are beginning to embrace calls for individual accountability for “bad cops” who they continue to insist are not representatives of their institutions as a whole. But while protesters continue to call for individual officers to be arrested and prosecuted, there is a growing recognition that police misconduct will continue, no matter how many reforms politicians enact, as long as policing exists at the present scale.

“They are desperate. They see that they’ve got a major credibility problem and that there are active campaigns to take their money away,” said Vitale. “This whole idea of jailing killer cops as a way to fix policing is completely naive and misguided. Even when they are convicted, as rare as that is, there’s really no evidence that this feeds back into changes in how policing is done.”

Reducing the size of police departments by curbing their resources, he and others argue, will be far more effective at reducing police violence than any costly effort to improve the police. “These ‘defund and fund alternatives’ kinds of movement are much more threatening to police chiefs, which is why I think they are bending over backwards to try to get out ahead of this thing,” said Vitale. “People in the movement are shifting: They are not calling for body cameras and more training. More and more people are like, ‘Fuck that, take their money away.’”

The Conversation Has Changed

The movement against police brutality took off in Minnesota after police killed Jamar Clark in 2015. The 24-year-old black man was shot in the head by a pair of officers who said they had acted in self-defense, a story some witnesses disputed. In the wake of his death, community members shut down Interstate 94 and occupied the 4th Precinct in North Minneapolis for more than two weeks. Despite intensive organizing by groups like the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice 4 Jamar, an internal investigation by the Minneapolis police department found that the two officers who killed Clark did not so much as violate a department policy.

Since then, local movements have pushed for justice for the families of victim after victim of police violence in Minnesota. Among those killed was Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black motorist pulled over by St. Anthony police in the suburb of Falcon Heights in 2016, whose girlfriend began livestreaming after an officer shot him as Castile reached for his wallet. In 2017, Justine Ruszczyk, also known as Justine Damond, a 40-year-old white woman, was approaching a Minneapolis police car to report a potential sexual assault when a startled police officer shot and killed her. And in 2018, body camera footage revealed Minneapolis police chasing Thurman Blevins, a 31-year-old black man who they said was carrying a gun, and shooting him to death. Jeronimo Yanez, the officer who killed Castile, was acquitted, and prosecutors declined to file charges against the officers who killed Blevins. Mohamed Noor, who killed Ruszczyk, was sentenced to 12 years in prison — a sentence that some felt only came because Ruszczyk was white and Noor is black. Her family was awarded a record $20 million settlement.
A niece of Jamar Clark protested with a photograph of the two Minneapolis police officers who were involved in Clark’s murder on Oct. 15, 2016, in Minneapolis. Star Tribune via Getty Images

At least a dozen police reform bills have failed to make meaningful progress in the state legislature since 2015. The most recent effort began last July, with the appointment of a task force that included police as well as anti-police-brutality organizers. After a series of public hearings, the group released a list of 28 proposals for reform in February, including creating a specialized unit in the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for investigating instances of deadly force. Then Covid-19 hit, and the follow-up actions required by the state legislature stalled.

On the heels of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson and of a series of other high-profile police killings, in 2014 Minneapolis became one of six cities to pilot the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice — a multimillion-dollar program that was the Obama administration’s response to the national call for police accountability. The initiative, widely replicated in police departments across the country, promoted a “community based” approach to policing in response to criticism of so-called broken windows policing and New York-style stop-and-frisk.

“The whole idea was that if police had implicit bias training, so more money for training police, and were using technology for more accountability, and that if police officers were more respectful when they’re interacting with the community, that that will promote a better idea of policing, and more cooperation with police,” said Nancy Heitzeg, a sociology professor at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, who has studied the initiative.

“That was the theory,” she said. “And what does it say about the limits of reform that the city of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis police department could be part of a multi-year, multimillion-dollar national project to enhance police community relations, and after all of that, here we are?”

After years of investment in improved policing with no results to show for it, “the conversation has changed,” she added. “There’s much more of a public awareness and conversation about abolition, and what that means and what that might look like. … I think people were radicalized by Jamar Clark and Philando Castile. And then they saw the contradictions around Justine Damond.”

Montgomery, the director of Black Visions Collective, said that organizers are tired of just calling for prosecutions. “We’re moving past a conversation around prosecuting the police and individual officers — that doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t prevent another Philando Castile or George Floyd,” said Montgomery. “To me and many of my comrades, police reform is irrelevant.”

Some demands have shifted to community control. Organizer Sam Martinez told The Intercept that the Coalition for Justice 4 Jamar wants a board similar to a city council or school board to run the police: controlling its budget, approving union contracts, and deciding disciplinary actions. Martinez says the board would have to be fundamentally different from previous civilian police review councils that law enforcement has mostly ignored.

For his part, Mayor Jacob Frey, who critiqued police during an election campaign that took place in the aftermath of Ruszczyk’s killing, increased the police budget last year by more than $8 million, part of an effort to put more officers on the street. He has called his brand of police reform “community-oriented” policing, where more officers would build stronger relationships with community members.

Meanwhile, the local police union has maintained powerful sway over the fate of the mayor’s tepid reform efforts. This summer, Frey banned police officers from participating in warrior-style trainings that promote an attitude that lethal threats to police are everywhere. Yanez, the officer who killed Castile, had participated in one such training. In response, Minneapolis police union head Bob Kroll, an avid Trump supporter, stated that the union would offer the training free to any officer who wanted it.

Montgomery argues that defunding police is the only meaningful way forward. “For too long we have invested a massive amount of money in an institution that continues to prove itself to be failing and to be inadequate to address the safety needs of our community,” said Montgomery. “Defunding is about allocating the abundance of resources we do have to things that have been proven to work” — like housing, health, and education.

On Friday morning, organizers with Reclaim the Block delivered a petition to Minneapolis city council members, demanding that they agree to never again increase the police funding, cut the current budget by $45 million to help manage Covid-19 shortfalls, invest in community-led health and safety strategies, and work to compel the police department to stop inflicting violence on community members. The elected officials were given a deadline of 8 a.m. Saturday to respond.

“My greatest hope is that our city council, our mayor, folks across the country take this opportunity to look at solutions that actually keep us safe and away from the police,” said Montgomery. “My fear is that we will settle for something that looks like justice but won’t change our future and won’t guarantee that we won’t have to be doing this in a couple of weeks or months or years.”