The tragic high-profile police murders of the last two years have ignited a long overdue national reckoning on policing. Public confidence in police has dipped to an all-time low and there have been protests of unprecedented scale across the country, including here in San Diego County. Our region has had its share of cases involving police brutality, and then some. The victims include Alfred Olango, Earl McNeil, Angel Hernandez, and more recently, Nicholas Bils, who was shot in the back and killed by a sheriff’s deputy in 2020.
Unfortunately, this undeniable appetite for police reform has not translated into federal action. Congressional leaders announced last month that they were unable to reach a deal on the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. The bill would have been transformative, ending qualified immunity that protects police officers accused of violating civil rights, creating a national police misconduct registry and empowering the Department of Justice to bring more civil rights cases forward.
The bill’s failure has been dispiriting. Many feel that our country missed a once in a generation moment to enact meaningful police reform. However, it is important to remember our communities get to choose how long this national moment of reckoning lasts. Activists, advocates and engaged citizens drive change—not legislators. Enhancing accountability and curbing police violence will remain urgent issues for lawmakers as long as they are a priority for constituents. Despite the “now or never” narrative around the Justice in Policing Act, our fight for comprehensive police reform is just getting started.
One reason we cannot abandon our calls for federal legislation is because there is still a pressing national crisis in policing. Officers and police agencies have not voluntarily improved their practices in response to growing public criticism. The rates of police killings have remained the same in the year after George Floyd’s brutal murder with over 1,000 people dying as the result of police violence since May 2020. While these cases may not capture national headlines, they show the need for reform is as urgent as ever for communities who are disproportionately targets of police brutality. The need for this legislation will continue until action is taken.
We should also continue to pursue national-level police reform legislation because the majority of Americans support it. There remains strong public support for many components of the Justice in Policing Act. Even stakeholders that typically favor maintaining the status quo for police were in favor of comprehensive policing legislation. The International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Fraternal Order of Police, both prominent police organizations, issued a joint statement to express their disappointment that the Justice in Policing Act did not pass. The organizations noted many provisions of the bill would strengthen police community engagement. The need for and support for national police reform legislation have continued despite failure of the Justice in Policing Act. Our advocacy should too.
We saw that persistence pays off in our state work to enhance police accountability. Here in California, advocates and impacted communities have worked together to ensure police reform has remained a priority for state legislators even where efforts have previously stalled. This year, a broad coalition of stakeholders were able to pass a landmark police accountability measure, known as Senate Bill 2, authored by San Diego’s Senate Pro Temp Toni Atkins and Senator Steven Bradford of Los Angeles, after the proposal failed to advance last session. Californians were able to win this victory because they kept the need for reform front and center and communicated the urgency for reform through continued advocacy.
La Mesa Assemblywoman Akilah Weber led a successful effort earlier this year to have the California state auditor investigate the unacceptably high number of deaths in San Diego County jails. A recent investigation found that San Diego County jails had the highest mortality rate among large counties in the state. Many of those deaths were tragic and preventable. The audit, which should be completed early next year, will assess overall policies and procedures at the jails, as well as whether the county’s newly-reformed Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board, which investigates in-custody deaths, has adequate resources.
Congress’s failure to pass federal policing legislation this year is disappointing, but it is not definitive. We have not missed the moment, but we must continue to fight for national comprehensive policing reform whenever we can. Follow the National Police Accountability Project to learn how you can stay informed and involved as we continue work for comprehensive police reform.