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Demonstrators gather at the Minnesota governor's mansion Monday, June 1, 2020, in St. Paul, Minn. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day.  © 2020 Julio Cortez/AP Photo

(Washington, DC) – The United States House of Representatives should not pass a federal policing bill slated for a vote this week without changes, Human Rights Watch said today. While the bill, touted as significant reform, contains some positive provisions, it funnels excessive amounts of federal funds to law enforcement that would be better spent on investments for communities in need. 

“We don’t need more task forces or studies to determine what is wrong with policing in the US today,” said Laura Pitter, deputy US director at Human Rights Watch. “We need to reduce the scope of policing and shift those resources to investments in communities that will create sustainable paths to public safety.”

An identical version of the bill, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021, was passed by the House in 2020 but not taken up by the Senate. House Democrats re-introduced the bill on February 24, 2021 and will try to push through a vote this week under a rule that allows expedited consideration for bills passed in the last congress.

On February 4, 2021, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to some of the bill’s sponsors, urging lawmakers to make changes before re-introducing it in this congress. Other human rights and civil liberties organizations have expressed similar concerns. Human Rights Watch’s letter pointed out that police in the United States killed 1,127 people in 2020, more than in 2019 though consistent with years past. Despite mass protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd and others, the total number includes 645 people killed since Floyd’s death.

Beyond killings, police officers have subjected many more people in the US – most frequently Black, Latinx, Indigenous people, people living in poverty, and people with disabilities – to other abuses through commonplace daily interactions that are coercive and often violent. These abuses, while not front-page news, contribute to consistent high rates of arrest and mass incarceration, with devastating long-term consequences for these communities.

Throughout the US, officials task police with responding to situations involving problematic substance use, homelessness, mental health issues, and poverty, rather than funding appropriate responses to address these social problems outside a policing context. Governments should vastly reduce their reliance on police for these purposes and instead invest in housing, affordable and accessible health care, economic development, and education – initiatives that directly address the problems – instead of criminalizing people in need, Human Rights Watch said.

The failure to prioritize and fund such direct solutions while prioritizing law enforcement, and criminalizing poverty and conduct linked to drug use or mental health conditions, has for decades increased inequities in US societies and harmed Black, brown, and low-income communities, Human Rights Watch said.

The bill contains some useful provisions, including to strip law enforcement officers of qualified immunity, create a national registry of police misconduct complaints, and make it somewhat easier for federal prosecutors to charge police officers with civil rights violations.

However, the bill also authorizes hundreds of millions of dollars to support law enforcement for more police training, the efficacy of which is not established, the setting up of various task forces, the creation of police accreditation programs, and more research into police “best practices.” Changes of this type are often used by policymakers to justify granting police agencies additional funding to hire more officers to carry out the changes. One provision expands a current funding stream to recruit and hire more officers.

Some provisions aimed at creating more accountability have loopholes that could be used to construct a veneer of accountability without actually delivering it. Others aimed at reining in specific abusive police practices, like no-knock warrants, do not go far enough to address the problems they aim to solve.

Lawmakers pushing for passage of the bill have significantly overstated its likely effectiveness. While some of the bill’s changes may have some positive impact and should be passed as stand-alone measures or as part of an improved larger package, overall, the bill does not contain the necessary fundamental reforms.

“While there is a hunger for an immediate response to police violence, no one should be fooled into believing that the JPA will end police abuse or even cause a significant reduction in the United States,” Pitter said. “Unless and until the US stops over-investing in policing and instead funds social policies that help individuals and communities thrive, people, and especially Black and brown people in the United States, will continue to experience pervasive police violence and systemic racism.”


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