Despite promises of reform, police violence continued at epidemic levels in 2020.
Despite promises of reform, police violence continued at epidemic levels in 2020. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

A global pandemic and promises for reform did little to stem rampant violence by police officers in 2020. Will the Biden administration be able to deliver actual, meaningful change?

Last month, police in Columbus, Ohio, killed two unarmed Black men in separate incidents within weeks of each other. Casey Goodson Jr., shot in the back as he entered his home carrying a sandwich, died in front of his horrified family. Andre Hill was delivering Christmas gifts to a friend.

These back-to-back tragedies join hundreds of other instances of police violence in 2020. Police killed 1,127 people in 2020. And yet again, Black people were disproportionately affected, making up 28% of those killed despite being just 13% of the United States’ population. They are three times more likely to be killed than whites, even though they are also less likely to be armed. 

COVID-19 Did Not Slow Police Violence, Despite Lockdowns and Curfews Around the Nation

Despite heightened calls for reform and accountability, state brutality against mostly Black and brown citizens has continued at an epidemic rate. In fact, the American Civil Liberties Union last year released a report, The Other Epidemic: Fatal Police Shootings in the Time of COVID-19, detailing the issue.

It found that US police kill an “obscene” number of people each year, three times more than their counterparts in Canada and 16 times England’s rate, though the exact number remains elusive because the data is not reported, collected, or analyzed in a uniform way. And the brunt of the violence falls on Black people in the United States.

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The problem is very much in the DNA of policing as an institution. According to the Economic Policy Institute, 75% of the 4,000 recorded lynchings from 1877-1950 were perpetrated with help from the police, and counties that had  higher rates of lynching then have more officer-involved shootings of Black residents now. Today, young, unarmed, male victims of fatal force by police are 13 times more likely to be Black than white, making police violence among the leading causes of death for young men of color, according to research published by the National Academy of Sciences.

Fatal shootings by police are so common that even during a year of pandemic-related shutdowns and curfews, police fatally shot people at the same rates that they did from 2015-2019. In some states, the rate of lethal killings actually increased, according to the ACLU report. 

On the Local Level, Some Cities Were Able to Make Progress, but Overall Demands for Change Have Not Been Met

The widespread protests that followed the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor led to a national discourse on addressing police misconduct and systemic racial bias. “Defund the police” became a popular phrase to denote diverting funds from police departments to other forms of public safety proven to be more effective against crime, such as social services, housing, education, and health care. Around the country, major cities announced Black Lives Matter plazas with bold slogans painted on the blacktop or concrete. 

Unfortunately, results have been mixed—at best. But bright spots have emerged and could provide a foundation for future changes.

Police in Newark, New Jersey, underwent a de-escalation training program two years ago and in 2020 did not fire a single shot. “Our officers have embraced de-escalation training and are actively employing this resource when engaging with the community,” Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose said in a joint public statement released on social media Dec. 30. “Our training also played a huge role in Newark having zero violence during this year’s protests of the murder of George Floyd.” 

Additionally, over a dozen cities adopted Campaign Zero’s 8 Can’t Wait platform, with varying degrees of success. Their agenda aims to reduce police killings by 72% by adding the following to departments’ use of force policies: de-escalation, banning chokeholds and strangleholds, duty to intervene and report when another officer is witnessed using excessive force, prohibiting shooting at moving vehicles, limiting the types of weapons that can be used, warning and exhausting all avenues before shooting at civilians, and mandating that officers provide a report each time they use force or threaten to use force. 

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The Charlotte, North Carolina police department was among several that touted compliance, then had to roll that back with the admission that some standards were not being met. But even cities where the standards are being met say it’s not enough. Some of the largest police departments in the country already have many of these policies in place, including New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. Chicago police departments are subject to 7 of the 8 policies, yet according to Campaign Zero’s police violence map, still kill Black people at 27.4 times the rate of whites.

Advocates for police abolition cite these examples when arguing that police reform, while politically palatable to most liberals ans some conservatives, is a short-term solution with limited effectiveness. Prejudiced officers, bad-tempered officers, and those who break the law will always pose a heightened danger to Black and brown citizens, they say. 

“As long as there are police, incidences of brutality and racist policing will persist, and change will be demanded once again. We’ve already repeated this cycle numerous times in the wake of the beating of Rodney King, the killing of Mike Brown, and other police violence that sparked unrest. The question is: when will enough be enough,” Olivia Murray posed in the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review.

The GOP Senate Stalled Momentum for Meaningful Change on the Federal Level

At the federal level, proposals raised included the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, George Floyd Law Enforcement Trust and Integrity Act, Ending Qualified Immunity Act

The bills seek to increase accountability with national registries of police misconduct and deadly force, raise the criminal intent standard to convict a law enforcement officer for misconduct, and limit qualified immunity, which protects officers from civil suits over excessive force or wrongful death. 

While all passed in the House of Representatives months ago, the GOP-controlled Senate refused to take any of them to the floor for a vote. 

That could change in the near future. With the victory of Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia on Jan. 5, Democrats will control both the Senate and the House of Representatives under the leadership of President-elect Joe Biden. Biden campaigned on promises to reset the justice system, including the use of consent decrees between the Justice Department and police departments to root out patterns of systemic racism and illegal policing. 

Contrasting the law enforcement’s violent response to peaceful anti-racism protests last summer with the kid-glove treatment shown to domestic terrorists at the nation’s capitol last week, Biden was clear the system needs drastic change. 

“No one can tell me that if it had been a group of Black Lives Matter protesting yesterday, they wouldn’t have been treated very, very differently than the mob of thugs that stormed the Capitol,” he said in remarks a day later. “We all know that’s true, and it is unacceptable. Totally unacceptable. The American people saw it in plain view. And I hope it’s sensitized them to what we have to do.”

READ MORE: The ‘Warrior Mindset’ of Cops Is One of the Biggest Obstacles to Police Reform