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Closing Argument

Three Years After George Floyd’s Murder, Police Reforms Are Slow-Paced

There have been mostly modest changes following protests that galvanized the country in 2020.

A photo shows the back of a police officer, with the words "Paterson Police" on their uniform.
New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Platkin launched a state takeover of the Paterson Police Department in March after a series of shootings and police misconduct.

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By any standard, the Paterson, New Jersey Police Department was exceptionally troubled.

Since 2019, its officers have been involved in the shooting deaths of four people, according to NJ Spotlight News. A group of officers admitted in federal court to forming a rogue squad that robbed and assaulted people in the city. Another officer admitted to selling drugs out of his police car in uniform while on duty.

One of the four killings was the shooting this March of Najee Seabrooks, a Black violence intervention worker who emerged from a bathroom with a knife after an hours-long standoff with officers in riot gear. Against this backdrop, New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Platkin launched a takeover of the Paterson Police Department weeks later. Unlike other recent efforts by conservative lawmakers to seize control of local police departments tied to concern about crime, Platkin, a Democrat, argues that his takeover is intended to curb civil rights abuses.

While unprecedented, The New York Times reports that “Platkin’s decisions in Paterson have been more modest than revolutionary”: retraining officers, hiring new leadership, and holding community meetings.

And while the details differ from place to place, modest change is largely what’s visible as we pass the third anniversary of George Floyd’s murder and the protests demanding a rethinking of law enforcement across the country in the summer of 2020.

States have passed hundreds of reform bills, and a number of cities have rolled out alternative response programs for mental health calls that would historically have been handled by police alone. But the overall footprint and funding of police remains roughly unchanged. In addition, congress has failed to pass comprehensive police reform, and elements of the Biden Administration’s policing executive order are long overdue.

Some people in Paterson are skeptical of the state takeover: “The attorney general is law enforcement. Law enforcement killed our brother,” Seabrooks’ friend, Quan Hargrove, told the Times. “How do you repair that trust? That’s a tall order.” The local Black Lives Matter organization is seeking an independent federal monitor for the police department, convinced that the problems there require the intervention of someone outside the state.

New Jersey is the only state where a takeover like the one in Paterson is currently possible. State law grants a unique amount of control over local policing to its attorney general. In 2020, then-Attorney General Gurbir Grewal instituted a broad suite of reforms on police use-of-force that in other states would have required action by the state legislature or an executive order by the governor.

One of the new requirements under the state reforms is an annual publication on the discipline officers receive for misconduct. The report for 2022 was released last month and showed extreme inconsistency in the discipline that officers face, even for similar conduct. It also revealed that Black officers face harsher sanctions than White officers.

One police accountability strategy that’s less common in New Jersey is civilian oversight boards. Though they’ve been used in other states for decades, New Jersey had none until 2015 in Newark, according to the New Jersey Monitor, and the state supreme court pared back that local board’s power in 2020. As we discussed in Closing Argument earlier this year, these civilian boards — which vary dramatically in structure and authority — have become more popular in recent years, and commonly get founded or revamped in the wake of high-profile cases of police violence.

In Ohio, where each of the state’s six largest cities have a civilian review board of some kind, the newly formed board in Akron is “up and running” as of May 30, Ideastream reports. Voters overwhelmingly approved the board after the 2022 police killing of Jayland Walker. Last week, people marched to protest a grand jury decision not to file charges against police officers in that case. In Philadelphia, meanwhile, the city’s police oversight board has been thrust into turmoil after three members resigned, citing “toxic dysfunction.”

Another popular police reform — intended to address racial disparities in policing outcomes — is to increase racial diversity in police forces. A recent sampling of more than 100 departments found that in the vast majority, people of color were underrepresented by 10 percentage points or more, compared with their rate in the local population. A number of researchers and activists have long been skeptical of the idea that police diversity by itself would improve outcomes. This debate was reignited by the January 2023 police killing of Tyre Nichols by five Black members of the Memphis police, who were later arrested and charged with murder.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison brought up Nichols’ case in an interview with Politico published Wednesday, arguing that the speed at which the officers were charged with a crime is proof of change in the wake of Floyd’s death. Ellison, who successfully prosecuted Minneapoilis police Officer Derek Chauvin for Floyd’s murder, said that his own re-election last year proves that prosecutors can pursue police accountability and still win elections.

“If you really want to make a meaningful dent in police brutality issues and police misconduct, you must start with prosecuting criminal conduct,” Ellison told Politico.

Jamiles Lartey Twitter Email is a New Orleans-based staff writer for The Marshall Project. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Guardian covering issues of criminal justice, race and policing. Jamiles was a member of the team behind the award-winning online database “The Counted,” tracking police violence in 2015 and 2016. In 2016, he was named “Michael J. Feeney Emerging Journalist of the Year” by the National Association of Black Journalists.