PITTSBURGH — In Minneapolis, the police force is being disbanded. In Toronto, the police chief has stepped down in the face of cuts to his budget and demands for answers about the role of police in the death of a Ukrainian-Afro-Indigenous woman who fell 24 stories after officers arrived to assist her. Here in Pittsburgh, a “Black Lives Matter” mural sprung up along the Allegheny River. 

And in Washington, D.C., lawmakers are struggling to respond to the furious reaction to the police killing of George Floyd.

The Minneapolis city council decision, the resignation of the Toronto chief and the painting of the Pittsburgh mural came quickly after Floyd’s death prompted widespread condemnation and street protests. The action in Washington won’t come so swiftly.

Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only black Republican, is drafting fresh police legislation. The Democrats already have their bill. Other proposals are sprouting across the capital. Melding them, reconciling them, preparing them for floor action and passing them may last as long as the summertime protests. And then the politics of an election year, and perhaps even a presidential veto, may intervene. The International Union of Police Associations endorsed Donald Trump’s reelection campaign as early as last September. A month later the Fraternal Order of Police did so.

Indeed, the president already has criticized the Democratic package, which includes a ban on police choke holds, and said its authors had “gone CRAZY.”

Here is an intriguing development: A Republican senator told me that elements of the Democratic bill could win bipartisan support, that there will be overlap in the bills, and that passage of some legislation is likely.

This is the place in a piece like this where a columnist talks about the police officers he has known — the ones in his high school class — and the good works police officers have performed in his life. In the 1970s, when some “refuseniks” — Russian Jews who yearned for freedom — finally moved from Soviet oppression to the ocean-fresh breezes of our Massachusetts beach town, they were startled when they saw police officers outside Temple Emanu-El on Rosh Hashanah. I remember my mother calming the frightened Russians: “Jakov and Tamar,” she said, “the police here are to keep us safe.”

But this also is the place where a columnist cites the famous disgraceful police acts beyond the death of Floyd, the unknown atrocities that never make the news, and the casual but hurtful police belligerence that African Americans have come to expect. Listen to the testimony of Gregory L. Moore, the former editor of The Denver Post, who has been stopped more than 20 times by police. That is 20 times more than I have been stopped, and besides the pigment of our skin, we are pretty much psychologically, intellectually, professionally, demographically and temperamentally identical:

“I’m a 65-year-old black man, and I have literally spent most of my life doing everything possible to avoid encounters with police.”

Hard unavoidable fact: The perspective Americans have about the police depends entirely on their race.

More than two months before the death of Floyd, the Public Policy Institute of California queried state residents on their perceptions of their local police, asking them if they believed all groups were treated fairly. The results were stunning but not surprising. Almost identical rates of whites, Hispanics and Asians — about two out of three of each group — said all were treated fairly most of the time. One out of three blacks said the same thing.

The bills floating around Capitol Hill could change police life as we know it — but we also know that changing the life experiences of blacks will take longer.

One target is a Civil War-era statute allowing criminal prosecution for police violations of Americans’ constitutional rights. Now federal authorities can charge officers for unreasonable searches and seizures or for killing or injuring people during law-enforcement activities. But the law poses an almost impossible burden of proof, requiring not just a show of excessive force but also that the force was used “willfully” to violate the person’s civil rights. It may be the highest burden of proof in the judicial system.

The new legislation would remove the “willfully” standard and substitute the phrase “knowingly or in reckless disregard” — not a nuance or a linguistic affect. It would mean that police officers could more easily be charged for abusive behavior and that these cases would be easier to prosecute and prove. Even in egregious cases, the Justice Department hesitates to prosecute because “willfully” is so hard to determine.

This small but significant adjustment in the law has been under quiet discussion for years in the back corridors of Washington, but until now few thought it was prudent to proceed to institute the change; its advocates worried that if they sought to make this change, Congress would open up the law for further changes or junk the entire statute.

Also under consideration: a change in the notion of “qualified immunity,” a doctrine generated by the courts, not Congress, and strengthened over the years so that it now is difficult to hold police officers liable for the damage they may do. Lawmakers are considering weakening this doctrine and chipping away at the near-complete protection from liability police officers now possess.

The controversial 1994 crime bill was written in large measure by police lobbyists sitting for months at a conference table in the office of Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. Now Congress is considering extending a provision that opened police departments to federal investigation if they had a “pattern or practice” of undertaking discriminatory practices such as “stop and frisk.” Attorney General William Barr believes the provision has been overused. Democrats disagree and are contemplating giving subpoena power to the criminal division of the Justice Department and providing incentives for state attorneys general to conduct these investigations.

All of this seems and sounds like the technical preoccupations that make Americans impatient with Washington. But it is in the fine print of legislation that big headlines can be produced — or avoided. Experts in police practices believe these adjustments can make a significant difference even after the steam of the spring protest moment fades away. They can make police more accountable, more responsive to correcting their mistakes, more likely to move toward best practices — and more likely to be remembered for their good works.

David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.

Recommended for you