On Feb. 24, Senate Democrats reintroduced a police reform bill in response to the May 2020 killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. The bill’s reintroduction comes as instances of police brutality continue at an alarming rate across the country — especially when it comes to people of color having mental health crises.
Police Violence Against People of Color with Mental Illness
In Antioch, California, the family of Angelo Quinto, a Filipino-American veteran, recently filed a wrongful death lawsuit after police officers kneeled on his neck in an encounter in December 2020. Democracy Now! reported that Quinto was suffering a mental health crisis when officers arrived at the scene, restrained him by the legs and kneeled on the back of his neck for nearly five minutes.
Quinto’s family launched their own investigation after the Antioch Police Department revealed few details of his death. According to their report, his mother said he pleaded, “Please don’t kill me,” while the officers knelt on his neck — disturbing imagery that echoed the murder of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
In the same month, Pennsylvania police shot and killed 19-year-old Christian Hall in the middle of a mental health crisis. Police said Hall, who was standing near a bridge with a gun, momentarily pointed it at them, but civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, who has been representing George Floyd’s family, says a video circulating online shows Hall with his hands up. Hall’s family is calling for an investigation into his death.
Additionally, this week, a New York grand jury voted against indicting the Rochester officers involved in the death of Daniel Prude, a Black man who was suffering a mental health crisis in March 2020 when police pinned him down and placed a mesh hood over his head. He later died of asphyxiation. The Rochester Police Department is also facing condemnation for an incident in January 2020 where police handcuffed and pepper-sprayed a 9-year-old Black girl in the middle of a mental health crisis and dispute with her mother.
From the Justice in Policing Act of 2020 to the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021
The bill Democrats introduced on Monday — called the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021 — is a reintroduction of the Justice in Policing Act of 2020 that passed in the House last year but was introduced to the floor of the Senate when it was made up of mostly Republicans. The Senate has since flipped to Democratic control following the November 2020 election.
The bill contains measures designed to make it easier to prosecute for police misconduct and demilitarize police departments across the country. It seeks to end qualified immunity that gives police officers and other officials immunity from civil lawsuits. Other provisions include a proposal to create a national registry to track misconduct and prevent offenders from being rehired by other departments, as well as a ban of chokeholds and no-knock warrants.
Now that the Senate has a larger concentration of Democrats, the bill has a better chance of passing. However, what most mainstream media outlets have failed to mention so far is that many of these ideas are not new — a passing of the bill won’t likely not solve the country’s perverse problem with police brutality. For example, chokeholds have been illegal in the NYPD for years, yet in 2014, but former officer Daniel Pantaleo still killed Eric Garner, an unarmed Black man, with a chokehold. Pantaleo still walks free.
What is the Solution?
In many cities, there have been talks of creating special mental health units that can respond to crises and peacefully deescalate them. A study by the Treatment Advocacy Center found people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to die in encounters with law enforcement. The vast majority of people with mental illness don’t pose threats to others.
In October, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) outlined community alternatives to policing in circumstances of mental illness. The ACLU cited programs already in existence, including Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) in Eugene, Oregon; Community Action Teams (CAT)-911 in Southern California; and a pilot program, Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland (M.A.C.R.O.) in Oakland, California.
But even these solutions have caveats. In Rochester, the city announced the creation of a mental health response unit after the death of Prude. But in the case of the 9-year-old girl, the unit was not dispatched because the call was interpreted as requiring a police response.
While many are calling to simply reform the police, many activists are calling to dissolve the system as it stands to create something new.
In June 2020, activist Mariame Kaba published an opinion piece in The New York Times titled, “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police.” Citing the original bill Democrats introduced in June, Kaba said reform wasn’t enough.
“We can’t reform the police,” Kaba wrote. “The only way to diminish police violence is to reduce contact between the public and the police.”