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On anniversary of George Floyd’s death, Biden takes limited steps toward police reforms

The order would also direct all federal law enforcement agencies to revise use-of-force policies and ban chokeholds unless deadly force is authorized.

The George Floyd memorial at the bus stop in front of Cup Foods.
The George Floyd memorial at the bus stop in front of Cup Foods.
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

WASHINGTON – With the relatives of George Floyd in attendance, President Biden will sign an executive order Wednesday that will impose reforms on the federal police and press state and local law enforcement agencies to make changes, too.

The action by the president on the two-year anniversary of Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer was prompted by Congress’ inability to pass its own reforms and is the result of months of White House negotiations with police unions, civil rights groups and victims of police violence.

According to senior White House officials, the executive order would create a new national registry of officers fired for misconduct and officers who have sustained complaints of misconduct or were subject to disciplinary actions for serious misconduct. All federal law enforcement officers, about 100,000, would be subject to this registry. But the White House cannot force, only encourage, state and local police to file reports of bad cops to this new registry.

“That is beyond the president’s power,” a White House official said.

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To prod local and state police toward reform, the Biden administration would instead look to condition certain federal policing grants on participation in the program and the enactment of other new policing policies adopted by the Biden administration.

But the executive order would mandate the screening of state and local police officers who participate in joint operations with federal officers.

The order would also direct all federal law enforcement agencies to revise use-of-force policies and ban chokeholds unless deadly force is authorized. It would also restrict the use of “no-knock” entries by federal officers and issue annual public reports on the use of no-knock entries.

Federal officers would also be required to wear body cameras when interacting with the public and expedite the release of footage from these cameras.

Biden’s order, to be signed in a Rose Garden ceremony with representatives of police groups, Floyd family members and families of other victims of police violence looking on, would also reinstate the Obama administration ban on the sale of surplus military equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies. That practice has been blamed for the “militarization” of the nation’s police forces.

The White House said the new measures would boost public trust in law enforcement.

“Increased trust makes policing more effective and thereby strengthens public safety,” a White House official said. “Without that trust, victims do not call for help. Witnesses do not step forward. Crimes go unsolved. Justice is not served.”

Floyd’s death two years ago and the national protest it inspired a shift in public opinion on issues of race and policing. But rising crime and midterm election politics have prompted Republicans to portray Democrats as soft on crime.

So the White House is promoting the support of law enforcement for these reforms, which are much less ambitious than the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act — a bill that was stalled by a lack of GOP support in the U.S. Senate.

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A main point of contention on the bill was its ban on “qualified immunity,” which legally shields police officers from civil and financial liability if they violate someone’s civil rights. Supporters of qualified immunity say it allows police to do their jobs without fearing they will be bankrupted by lawsuits if they make a mistake.

Still many Democrats in Congress continue to press for more substantial reforms, even as they laud the steps taken by Biden on Wednesday.

“As we grieve on the two-year anniversary of George Floyd’s death, we should find purpose in recommitting ourselves to a meaningful, sustained push towards racial justice and police reform,” said Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn. “This executive order will help encourage state and local law enforcement to adopt needed reforms, like eliminating the use of dangerous chokeholds and no-knock warrants. But Congress must also act to address these deep-rooted issues.”

Rep. Angie Craig, D-2nd District, said, “I believe that the country needs both a more just law enforcement system and more of our valued police officers to secure our communities from harm. And like most Minnesotans, I believe that we can accomplish both of those goals if we set politics aside and work together.”

“I applaud President Biden’s decision today to enact these commonsense reforms that will improve policing and make our communities safer,” Craig said. “George Floyd should be alive today. He should be alive to swap trucking tips with his brother, take a walk around his neighborhood on a beautiful spring day, and hug his family. But every day that he isn’t here is a reminder of the work that lies ahead.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn, said the anniversary of Floyd’s death should be marked as a new commitment to make “meaningful change in our justice system and build on the progress set in motion by President Biden’s actions … to improve it. Let us lift up George Floyd’s memory as the man who inspires us to confront systemic racism with systemic change.”