Article • Last updated on Dec 2, 2020

Assessing the State of Police Reform

How Jurisdictions Are Responding to Calls for a Fundamental Change in Policing

The nationwide protests following the senseless killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans have started to change how police are held accountable.

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Demonstrators in downtown Washington, D.C., protest the death of George Floyd on June 1, 2020. (Getty/Drew Angerer)
Demonstrators in downtown Washington, D.C., protest the death of George Floyd on June 1, 2020. (Getty/Drew Angerer)

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The recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans have shown that the country’s pattern of police violence is as much a reality today as it was in the past. The national protests that followed these killings have focused on the expansive authority given to police in the United States, who have become not only law enforcers but also default responders to homelessness, mental and physical health distress, substance misuse, and school discipline issues—areas where they do not have the appropriate training and expertise. Along with such expansive authority, the police have been granted wide latitude to employ tactics of force without meaningful oversight or accountability.

Police reform priorities

The national protests have begun to result in some tangible changes to restore communities’ trust in the police as well as ensure public safety. Jurisdictions at the state and local levels are taking action to right-size the role of the police and hold them accountable to the people they serve, from calling for more transparency and data collection, to placing an emphasis on community-based solutions.


of Americans say the Minneapolis killing is an isolated incident

Washington Post-Schar poll, "Big majorities support protests over Floyd killing and say police need to change, poll finds" (2020).


of Americans say the killing of Floyd represents a broader problem with law enforcement.

Washington Post-Schar poll, "Big majorities support protests over Floyd killing and say police need to change, poll finds" (2020).

Increase transparency and accountability

Governors and state legislatures have advanced a number of reforms that aim to increase police transparency and accountability. Gov. Jared Polis (D-CO), for example, signed a police accountability bill, which requires law enforcement to collect and report data on individual encounters and allows officers to be sued in their individual capacities without the protection of qualified immunity. Moreover, the new law forbids officers from using deadly force unless they face an imminent threat, and it prohibits deadly physical force to apprehend a person suspected only of a minor or nonviolent offense. Meanwhile, in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed into law the “Say Their Name” reform agenda package, which permits the disclosure of officers’ prior disciplinary records and designates the New York attorney general as an independent prosecutor for matters relating to civilian deaths.

"The profession that has the power to kill should be a profession that has national standards, is transparent and is accountable to the public." ― Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), Chairwoman, Congressional Black Caucus NPR, "READ: Democrats Release Legislation To Overhaul Policing" (2020).

At the local level, mayors and city councils have also pushed for reforms of police transparency and accountability. City councils across the country, for instance, approved resolutions that, if passed, would create independent oversight commissions with subpoena power to complete witness testimony and seek records. As of December 1, 2020, these resolutions have passed in Philadelphia and San Diego, along with similar ballot measures in Oakland, California; San Francisco; King County, Washington; Portland, Oregon; Pittsburgh; Sonoma County, California; Kyle, Texas; and Columbus, Ohio. Other examples of reforms to increase police transparency and accountability are listed in the text box below.

State and local reforms to increase police transparency and accountability

Measures of police accountability

  • Virginia’s governor signs into law bills that authorize the state attorney general to conduct pattern-or-practice investigations of police misconduct.
    Virginia | October 21, 2020
  • The Spokane City Council rejects a police union contract that reform advocates argued fell short of implementing civilian oversight.
    Spokane, Washington | June 29, 2020
  • The Minnesota Department of Human Rights will file a civil rights charge against the Minneapolis Police Department and investigate the police department’s policies and practices over the past 10 years.
    Minneapolis | June 2, 2020
  • The Sacramento City Council votes to approve the mayor’s plan to create an inspector general to investigate police’s use of force and misconduct.
    Sacramento, California | July 3, 2020

Requirement of data reporting and collection

  • The Washington, D.C., mayor signs the unanimously approved emergency legislation that bans the hiring of officers with a history of misconduct, requires the release of information on officers who use force on civilians, and leaves the police union out of the disciplinary process.
    Washington, D.C. | July 23, 2020
  • The New Jersey attorney general orders the state’s police departments to identify officers who have been fired, suspended, or demoted for misconduct.
    New Jersey | June 15, 2020
  • Voters in Akron, Ohio, approve a ballot measure that requires the police to release video footage from body and dashboard cameras after an officer’s use of force resulting in death or serious injury.
    Akron, Ohio | November 3, 2020
  • Voters in San Jose, California, approve a ballot measure that authorizes the independent police auditor to review reports and records related to officer-involved shootings and uses of force resulting in death or injury.
    San Jose, California | November 3, 2020
  • New York City will launch a public online database that lets New Yorkers track police disciplinary cases.
    New York City | June 17, 2020
  • Atlanta’s mayor signs an administrative order that requires uses of deadly force to be reported to the city’s citizen review board.
    Atlanta | June 15, 2020
  • The Denver Police Department requires officers to report instances of pointing a gun at someone.
    Denver | June 7, 2020

Overhaul harmful police policies and practices

At both the state and local levels, there have been efforts to reform policing policies and practices that have resulted in excessive uses of force. For example, Gov. Ned Lamont (D-CT) implemented by executive order a set of reforms that bans chokeholds, mandates body and dashboard cameras, and restricts the transfer of military equipment to the Connecticut State Police. Additionally, the Salt Lake City Police Department banned the use of chokeholds and tear gas to respond to protests. On October 21, 2020, Gov. Ralph Northam (D-VA) signed into law a bill that prohibits law enforcement officers from seeking or executing a no-knock search warrant, making Virginia the third state after Oregon and Florida to prohibit no-knock warrants.

Cities have also taken up reforms to prevent racial profiling by the police. The Des Moines City Council passed an anti-racial profiling ordinance that mandates new annual police training on de-escalation, cultural diversity, cultural competency, and implicit bias. Cities such as Boston and Santa Cruz, California, also banned the use of technologies that may result in racial profiling, such as facial recognition and predictive policing. Other examples of reforms to overhaul police policies and practices are listed in the text box below.

State and local reforms to overhaul harmful police policies and practices

Bans on chokeholds

  • Utah’s governor bans chokeholds for Utah Highway Patrol and state corrections officers.
    Utah | June 11, 2020
  • The Denver Police Department bans chokeholds.
    Denver | June 7, 2020

Bans on racial profiling

  • The Georgia General Assembly approves a hate crimes bill that allows enhanced criminal penalties to be levied against those who target their victims based on race, gender, sexual orientation, sex, national origin, religion, or physical or mental disability.
    Georgia | June 23, 2020
  • The New York governor signs a reform package that makes it a civil rights violation to call 911 to report a nonemergency incident involving a member of a protected class without reason to suspect a crime or an imminent threat.
    New York | June 12, 2020
  • Voters in Philadelphia approve a ballot measure that adds language to the city charter calling on the police department to eliminate unconstitutional stop and frisk actions.
    Philadelphia | November 3, 2020
  • Voters in Portland, Maine, approve a ballot measure that bans the use of facial recognition technology by the police and other public agencies or businesses.
    Portland, Maine | November 3, 2020

Bans on military training and equipment transfer

  • Virginia’s governor signs into law a bill that prohibits law enforcement from obtaining or using equipment such as grenades, weaponized aircraft, and high-caliber firearms, except for use in search and rescue missions.
    Virginia | October 21, 2020
  • The Charlottesville City Council approves a resolution to prohibit the police from acquiring weapons from the military and taking military or “warrior” training.
    Charlottesville, Virginia | July 20, 2020

Prioritize community-based solutions to public safety

Mayors and city councils have pushed for community-based solutions to public safety, and a few have called for reductions in the police budget to pay for such investments. The Seattle City Council, for example, opted to reduce the public’s exposure to policing on the front end by decriminalizing certain lower-level offenses. San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced that the city will replace police with trained, unarmed professionals to respond to calls that don’t involve a threat to public safety. Many school boards and superintendents in cities such as Portland, Oregon, have also decided to downsize or eliminate police presence on campus. At the postsecondary level, the University of Minnesota announced that it would end its contract with the Minneapolis Police Department. Other examples of reforms to prioritize community-based solutions to public safety are listed in the text box below.

State and local reforms to prioritize community-based solutions to public safety

De-emphasis of criminalization and law enforcement

Elimination of police presence in schools

Decreases to police budgets

  • Voters in San Francisco approve a ballot measure that eliminates the requirement that at least 1,971 full-time officers be on staff and requires the police department to submit a report and recommendation of staffing to the police commission every two years.
    San Francisco | November 3, 2020
  • The Pittsburgh City Council dedicates 10 percent of the police budget annually to evidence-based violence prevention social service programs.
    Pittsburgh | July 28, 2020
  • The Northampton City Council votes to cut its police budget by 10 percent.
    Northampton, Massachusetts| June 19, 2020
  • The Norman City Council cuts $865,000 from police funding and seeks to reallocate that money toward a to-be-determined community outreach program.
    Norman, Oklahoma | June 17, 2020
  • The Portland City Council defunds the police bureau by $15 million.
    Portland, Oregon | June 17, 2020
  • Los Angeles’ mayor seeks to redirect up to $150 million from the police budget to youth jobs, health initiatives, and damages for those who have suffered discrimination.
    Los Angeles | June 5, 2020

Kenny Lo is a research associate for Criminal Justice Reform at the Center for American Progress.

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Kenny Lo

Research Associate

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