Mass Protest Over the Death of George Floyd Sparks National Debate on Police Accountability

Jun 13, 2020

There’s no doubt that George Floyd’s brutal death in police custody last month has ignited a mass protest movement on a scale not seen since the 1960s. But it remains to be seen just what kind of change will come to pass.

People attend the procession of a horse-drawn carriage bringing the body of George Floyd for burial at the Houston Memorial
Credit NPR/Johannes Eisele/ Getty Images

WBGO contributor Bob Hennelly, who is also a reporter with the City Hall reporter for the Chief Leader,  has been covering the issue of race and policing for the last 30 years.   Hennelly spoke with WBGO News Director Doug Doyle.

DOYLE:   In the Floyd case the officers were fired, arrested and charged. 

HENNELLY: That is unusual. Police officers in the United States have tremendous legal advantages and protections under the law. They have of course sovereign immunity which goes back to the concept in common law which goes back to the concept of the king can do no harm. It’s hard to prosecute the government. Then there is qualified immunity which is the legal concept that police can’t be held legally liable for violating someone’s civil rights and if that is not enough—talk about belts and suspenders, they are often indemnified and if their actions aren’t criminal but their actions make them vulnerable to civil case for police misconduct. The local government or state government will step up and carry the burden there as well. And, of course, on top of all of that in then in the political world there are is the PBA, the police unions, which have considerable clout depending on the city you are in.

DOYLE:  You mentioned that some of the biggest impediments to police accountability is the way that both existing Federal and state laws currently limit the prosecution of police misconduct. What kind of reforms are being contemplated and to what degree do police reform advocates have bi-partisan support?  

HENNELLY: Right now, in Congress we have the Justice in Policing Act which is being advanced in the U.S. Senate by Senator Cory Booker and Congressman Jerry Nadler who chairs the Judiciary Committee in the House and this would be a significant overhaul. It would require something that you would think would be common sense, which is a national registry for bad police behavior, for lawsuits, cases of criminal misbehavior. Currently it is possible to mess up seriously, lose your shield and gun in one state and even sometimes to the next municipality in the same state and continue working. This registration would provide local police chiefs with the ability to conduct a background check [employment] which doesn’t currently exist. There are also a whole bunch of other reforms—ending chokeholds, which is what we saw so tragically in the case of Mr. Floyd. It would also call for increased training. Right now, believe it or not Doug, in some states you have to spend more hours to become a cosmetologist than to become a police officer.  

DOYLE: Over the last several days the protestors and even elected municipal officials across the country have been using the phrase defund the police. How would that work?  

HENNELLY: Well, I think this is a case where twitter has gotten the best of a movement that has a lot of momentum. It was something that was said in response at the municipal level were over the years we have seen increased fund for police like with overtime and at the same time across the country we have seen pullbacks in public health, after school program athletic programs that used to be free to all the kinds. Right? In urban areas with budget crunches those things have been removed and people have to do local fundraisers in their community because there isn’t support. I think what is meant here is a kind of a reprioritization of things because as it Is now, we are putting things towards police when we have issues like chronic homelessness. Often the police are called upon to do these things like deal with the chronically mentally ill. You may remember this country made a decision to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill. And what we see now is many of these folks are living in our public libraries, in our transit system and our jails and it is up to our police and corrections officers to deal with the things we would rather ignore. So, what I think folks are suggesting here is to fund those priorities and have the police focus on what they do best. And also better train the police in terms of training them on how to understand how to go about deconflicting situations and to help them be more connected to the communities they serve, which will also actually protect them in the long run. 

Maurice Gordon and his mother Racquel Barrett
Credit Facebook

DOYLE: We have been covering the story of Maurice Gordon, a 28-year-old black man from Poughkeepsie that was shot six times back on May 23 by a white New Jersey State Trooper on the Garden State Parkway in Burlington County after he was stopped for speeding. What is the status of that case?

HENNELLY: Well this week we saw the Attorney General office release what they have in the way of documentary evidence and all of the exhibits including 911 tapes and videos that were generated by the police officer’s dash cam. There are still a lot of questions that remain. The family, represented by Attorney Wagstaff, are concerned that what was released publicly has been redacted and so they are looking for the entirety of the file. And the family is also going to conduct an independent autopsy. There’s a lot of concern that the name of the State Trooper just came to light this week. And all of this of course, according to New Jersey state law, has to culminate with it being presented before a grand jury.