The United States House of Representatives passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021 (HR 1280), thanks to Representative Karen Bass (D-CA). Facing an uphill battle in the U.S. Senate, this ambitious legislation notably limits qualified immunity as a defense for those officers liable in egregious abuses of the use of force. Should this bill successfully arrive at President Biden’s desk — he has expressed his support for this legislation — this could become one of the most consequential reforms in policing since the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act; or so we hope. The problem, as I see it, is we need to reform law enforcement culture in America. I predict certain blowback to this legislation — as it is considered and even more so if it passed. The call for significant reform will likely reinforce the belief among many in law enforcement that the general public’s “reactionary” and “ill-informed” perspectives about law enforcement further complicate the already complex matter of policing. However, we live in a society that has witnessed varied responses to perceived threats: In August last year, Jacob Blake, Black man, was shot multiple times in the back by an officer due to Blake carrying a knife, in contrast in Georgia, Dalton Potter, a white man, was apprehended without injury despite having shot a sheriff’s deputy and another man. My argument here is that no matter the legislative mandates, what is critical for shifting the culture of law enforcement is to address decision-making, particularly with regard to the use of force.
Consider this simple anecdote: Everything one does is based upon the choices he/she makes. Last May, many Americans – indeed many around the world – observed the tragic death of George Floyd, Black man, as he begged for air while a white officer remained over him with his knee on Floyd’s neck. In stark contrast, America observed as a Black Capitol Police officer, Eugene Goodman, stood as a singular line of defense in the face of an angry white mob advancing on him in the US Senate building on January 6th, 2021. In Floyd’s case, a white officer cruelly meted out justice on Floyd’s body, having escalated the matter from a discussion to apprehension. It was four officers against one. The heavy-handed nature of the officers’ response that resulted in the death of Floyd remains a debate today. On January 6th at the U.S. Capitol building, Officer Goodman faced a mob without once removing his sidearm from his holster – even being close enough to one of the insurgents to repeatedly push him in the chest. The psychology — the perceptions which drive decision-making — within the use of force matrix is what each officer is trained to use to assess threats. Nonetheless, the contrast in the responses illustrated here reflects important issues that have yet to be addressed within narratives about police reform. First, there is no universal mandate to uniformly define the use of force matrix across all the 1800+ law enforcement agencies across the United States. Second, without universal training and application of use of force principles, what will remain is a disparate range of responses along the use of force matrix to threats based upon the level of training received by each officer. Last, the application of the use of force matrix shares a nexus with military culture and this nexus spreads a warrior ethos within law enforcement culture through the use of language and symbols that reify a cultural divide between law enforcement and the communities they are supposed to serve.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is a critical step forward regarding changing the way this country applies law enforcement but, I feel, the real issue is law enforcement culture. Defunding police departments to re-purpose funding for restorative justice measures is critical to reframing how our society conceptualizes the application of enforcing laws. Until we address how officers are trained and how they make decisions within the use of force matrix and until we unhinge law enforcement culture from its nexus with military culture through the use of flags and symbols, all legislation will only be superficial.