Breonna Taylor, unarmed and asleep, was shot eight times after the police barged into her home at night suspecting a drug case that proved to be untrue. The policemen who were responsible for this were reassigned but remain free from charges of murder and still hold their positions in the police department.
Alton Sterling was shot six times after being tasered when he was selling his DVDs. The policeman responsible was fired, while his partner was suspended for a mere three days. They both have not faced any charges for his murder.
Stephen Clark was shot more than twenty times in his grandmother’s backyard because the police thought he was holding a gun. He was actually holding a phone. The police officer did not face charges, and Clark’s family was paid compensation money.
These are just three of the innumerable stories of the victims of police brutality. I request you go through the Know their names series by Alia Chughtai in Al Jazeera to know more about such stories. Their names deserve to be said aloud and remembered.
One such story is that of George Floyd. He was choked to death by officer Derek Chauvin who knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, on suspicion of use of counterfeit $20 notes. George Floyd’s death proved to be a catalyst for pushing lawmakers into considering the vulnerability of the African-American community and the threat that excess power in the hands of police poses to the minority communities in the United States. The Police Reform Bill is a consequence of widespread public outrage and protests following the video of George Floyd’s murder. The video, while not being the only evidence of the brutal conduct by the police towards the African-American citizens, was the breaking point. The unprecedented yet extremely valid and long-awaited display of anger from the black community and their allies demanded consideration and attention of the lawmakers.
Currently, the police in the United States enjoys qualified immunity, allowing them to get away after committing crimes that led to the death of Breonna Taylor and Alton Sterling. The police do not get proper sensitivity and awareness training. Moreover, there are almost no checks and mechanisms to hold them accountable. In previous cases of police brutality, almost none of the officers faced criminal charges and received a mere slap on the wrist for their grievous offences.
The new Police Reform Bill 2020 is aimed towards changing the aforementioned situations. The Bill bans maneuvers like chokeholds and ‘no-knock’ entry, which are the most common causes of death. It sets limits in the use of tear gas, mandates police officers to wear body cameras, and ensures dashboard cameras on police vehicles. This will act as a deterrent towards the use of excessive and violent methods of restraining people. It will limit the transfer of military-grade equipment to state and local police, and allow victims of police brutality to file a case against the police for using excessive force or for violating their constitutional rights. Sensitivity and racial awareness training programmes for police are also a part of the Bill amongst other things.
However, the Bill is far from being adequate in ensuring police accountability. The new Bill limits qualified immunity but does not remove it from existence. The police will still continue to enjoy immunity in cases of police brutality until the situation is extreme. The lawmakers in many states argue that eliminating qualified immunity would result in frivolous cases and waste of funds. This only highlights the apathy of many lawmakers towards the civil rights and safety of their citizens. Additionally, the Bill does not de-fund or even reduce the funds allocated to the police. This emphasises the importance lawmakers place on the police regardless of their conduct and offences.
The Police Reform Bill having been passed in the house of representatives currently awaits being passed in the Senate, and still has a long way to go before it can become a law. The Bill remains stuck amidst the bipartisan politics, with the Republicans and Democrats fighting to gain the upper-hand in the Senate. States are voting towards passing the Bill with modifications while the Democrats and the Republicans continue to argue on the finer points of the Bill. The Connecticut Police Reform Bill was debated upon the entire night before it was passed.
The significance of this Bill is not just limited to holding the police accountable and safeguarding the civil rights and liberty of the African-American and other minority communities, it is also an acknowledgement of the atrocities faced by the African-American community. The bill is a step towards recognising the names of the forgotten victims and a promise to do better.
The public’s reaction to this Bill is majorly positive. While they continue to advocate for defunding the police and completely removing qualified immunity, they are willing to listen, ready to fight for a better future, and acknowledge this Bill as a step towards the same. Sadly, yet expectedly, there also exists a faction of the public, thankfully small, that is not pleased with the idea of holding the police accountable. So far, their silly cries of “Blue Lives Matter” have been relatively ignored, and have faced criticism and backlash from their fellow citizens. Yet this faction, no matter how small, still indicates that America has a long way to go. The fight towards racism begins from this Bill, yet it would not do to ignore the root cause of the problem.
The responsibility for George Floyd’s death does not lie solely with the police. It also lies with the system that provided the perpetrators support, and with the system that was willing to ignore their actions. It lies in the lack of checks and balances on the police and most importantly, it lies with the people who spread the ideas of bigotry and hatred. They may not have been the one pressing the knee to an innocent man’s neck, but they were the ones who stood by, watched, and did nothing.
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