Police reform advocates on what ‘justice’ for George Floyd really means

At least 980 people have been killed by police since Floyd's death last year.

"Justice for George Floyd" became one of several demands that sparked a movement against police brutality and racism in policing in the summer of 2020. Now, organizers, activists and lawmakers alike are reexamining what justice actually means.

“We know that what justice would look like in a perfect world -- it would be that George Floyd is alive,” said Anthonine Pierre, a spokesperson for Communities United For Police Reform and the deputy director of the Brooklyn Movement Center. “Justice would be changing the system and changing the policies that made it possible for George Floyd to be killed.”

There have been more than 980 people who have been killed by police since Floyd’s murder on May 25, 2020, according to data from Mapping Police Violence, a research collaborative that collects data on fatal uses of force by police. Of the 609 victims whose races are known, almost 30% of them are Black, though Black people only represent 13% of the U.S. population.

Almost a year after Floyd’s death, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter. He now faces up to 40 years in prison.

But just before the verdict was announced in the trial, a Black teenager, 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant, was fatally shot by police in Columbus, Ohio. The police officer who shot Bryant was outside of his vehicle for only 11 seconds before shooting the teenager, according to the video footage released by the Columbus Police Department.

The timing of Bryant’s death, so close to the Chauvin verdict, is no coincidence, Pierre said, adding that she believes it’s emblematic of how prevalent police killings of Black people are.

“There's no way that a police department is going to reform itself or can reform itself," Pierre said. "Even this guilty verdict was not a result of people just waking up and feeling like in their heart of hearts that this needed to happen, but it was the result of almost a year of the same pressure, direct action and organizing all across the country. If the government could reform police, then they would have already.”

Following the announcement of Chauvin's conviction last week, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced a federal probe into the policing practices in Minneapolis. The Justice Department plans on launching an investigation into any "pattern or practice of unconstitutional, unlawful policing” within the Minneapolis Police Department.

Chauvin had at least 18 prior complaints of misconduct against him in his 19 years at the department, according to the city. He’s not the only one -- a 2019 investigation into police misconduct by USA Today found 85,000 officers who have been investigated or disciplined for misconduct since 2009.

Beverly Tillery, executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, said she believes racism and homophobia in the judicial system will continue to prevent justice for Black, brown and LGBTQ communities and that a new system will require creative solutions.

Reimaging the justice system requires more accountability from police chiefs, sheriffs and police departments, she said. Not only should individual officers lose their jobs for killing people, Tillery argued, but police jurisdictions should be defunded and have money should be invested in community support systems such as education, social work services, and more.

“We can’t define justice in terms of one incident, one police officer being put away. We really have to look at the problem and the issue as systemic,” Tillery said. “We have a long ways to go in this country before Black and brown people, queer people really feel safe in interactions with the police.”

After Floyd’s death, protesters around the globe demanded that U.S. legislators address the issues of police violence and the state of policing in America. Calls to “abolish” and “defund” police entered the mainstream as people demanded that legislators redirect funding from police departments to communities.

According to the nonpartisan, nonprofit data organization USAFacts, police departments are typically the second-largest category of local government spending. The organization's research states that policing makes up 9.2% of local budgets and accounts for up to $192,940 per officer, including part-time employees. It costs an average of about $340 per person per year to fund public policing in the United States, with police in the U.S. costing $193 billion in 2017.

Research from FiveThirtyEight and the Marshall Project shows that cities pay millions in settlements for alleged police misconduct.

Floyd’s family, for example, received $27 million in a civil lawsuit against the city of Minneapolis. The family’s attorney Ben Crump called it the largest pretrial settlement ever for a civil rights claim.

In most settlement cases, though, the police officers themselves are not held accountable, FiveThirtyEight reported.

Several lawmakers across the country have attempted to answer protesters' calls for justice. A count from the National Conference of State Legislatures shows that around 450 pieces of policing reform were introduced in 31 states.

However, many of these efforts failed, including the Minneapolis City Council’s proposal to eliminate the police department and replace it with the Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention.

There are also renewed calls to push forward with the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which was originally introduced in June 2020. It was recently re-upped and passed by the House of Representatives in March.

The bill aims to address “policing practices and law enforcement accountability” and includes “measures to increase accountability for law enforcement misconduct, to enhance transparency and data collection, and to eliminate discriminatory policing practices,” according to the summary of the bill.

It is supposed to enhance federal enforcement of constitutional violations by state and local law enforcement and would ban no-knock warrants and chokeholds. It would also create a national registry to compile data on police misconduct.

However, the bill doesn’t directly address calls to “defund the police,” and it contains a grant program that seems to give some departments more funding.

“We dump a lot of money into police departments to have millions of people be afraid to interact with the police when they need help or services,” Tillery said. “We need to start taking that money and putting it investing in something that's really going to work for us.”

The next step toward reaching justice, Tillery said, is allowing communities to create their own systems of safety, so that deaths like Floyd’s and Bryant’s no longer happen.

“it just makes me really sad," she said, "that we are still at a point in our society in 2021 where we have to work extra hard to humanize Black and brown people and for them to maybe get some inkling of justice in our court system."