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George Floyd case underscores thorny issue of U.S. police reform

A protester smiles at a row of police officers during a “Justice 4 George Floyd” demonstration over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white policeman kneeled on his neck for several minutes in Houston, Texas on May 29, 2020. File Photo

Washington, U.S. | Xinhua | The ongoing murder trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin who last year killed unarmed black man George Floyd underscores the issue of police reform, which U.S. President Joe Biden has said he wants to address.

The full video of Floyd’s arrest played by prosecutors in opening statements in the trial shows that Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for about 9 minutes and 30 seconds, instead of the widely reported 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Floyd could be heard pleading with Chauvin multiple times, saying that he couldn’t breathe.

Chauvin was charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. The incident sparked nationwide protests and led to even some calls to de-fund the police.

“Biden wants the police to work closely with the communities they serve and avoid the aggressive tactics that have been used in certain places,” Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Darrell West told Xinhua.

“This includes a ban on chokeholds and greater accountability when law enforcement actions lead to death or bodily harm,” West said.

During Biden’s six terms as a senator, he had strong backing from cops’ organizations. He pledged to address police reform during his campaign, as well as the broader issue of racial inequality in the United States.

But the issue is not an easy one to tackle, as police have a tough job, and are often confronted with situations in which their lives are at stake and they must make split-second decisions, experts say.

Republicans take a pro-law enforcement stance, and fear that any of Biden’s potential reforms could mean inhibiting officers’ ability to control violent crime, or that they could put officers’ lives in danger.

West said Republicans will condemn the Democratic moves as making it harder for police officers to enforce the law.

Clay Ramsay, a researcher at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, told Xinhua that Biden could take a number of steps toward police reform.

One is to legislate a grant program for municipalities to build up community policing in their police departments. The vague phrase covers many activities that those who support de-funding the police favor, especially using social workers and paramedics to help handle many police calls where the threat of violence is low.

Another is to pass legislation that would wind down mass incarceration, as the extraordinary size of the aging U.S. prison population is more and more expensive. This subject has bipartisan legs in Congress, and it has many different aspects, some of which would pass with little difficulty, Ramsay said.

Moreover, Attorney General Merrick Garland’s Department of Justice (DOJ) can resume federal investigations of abuse in local police departments and sue them, Ramsay said.

If a police department doesn’t want to face DOJ lawyers in court, it can sign a consent decree which commits it to change its behavior with DOJ supervision — this tool was abandoned by the DOJ under former U.S. President Donald Trump, Ramsay said.

“We are about to see whether Garland brings it back and how forcefully he uses it,” Ramsay said.

But critics said some Republicans claim the DOJ is shackling the police out of political correctness.

“Police reform is not going to be police reform. Who knows what they’ll put” into an executive order or bill to reform police, GOP strategist and TV news personality Ford O’Connell told Xinhua.

He was referring to criticisms that over half of Biden’s recent COVID-19 rescue package was what many called a progressive wish list that had nothing to do with COVID-19.

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Xinhua

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