Wilson Center Creates Database to Track Police Use of Force Legislation
“We were interested in what kind of legislation was going to result and we saw over time that, like lots of topics, the reactions to calls for police reform were polarized and partisan,” says Garrett.
The database does not just look at proposed and passed legislation following Floyd’s death, but also two years before his death, in an effort to obtain a better understanding of what efforts were being made even before the Floyd tragedy unfolded.
“Although much more legislation was introduced in 2020 and 2021, the percentage of laws introduced that regulate police in some way that passed didn’t really change,” says Garrett. “It’s a fixed percentage: 15 to 16 percent of these laws passed.”
During a media briefing earlier this year, Elana Fogel, professor and director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at Duke Law, said in addition to legislative and legal changes, a change in culture is what many reform activists believe is needed. At the same briefing, Angie Weis Gammell, policy director of the Wilson Center, added that some cities have set up civilian advisory and review boards to increase community oversight of police.
However, she added: “I don’t think that there’s been a transformative change in terms of how cities manage and oversee their police departments, unfortunately.”
Nationally, there are no clear standards for how and when police should use force. One effort, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021, passed the U.S. House, but stalled in the Senate over the issue of qualified immunity for police officers.
“The standards that the Supreme Court has come up with have almost made it almost impossible to hold police accountable for egregious constitutional violations. The only way to fix that problem is to change things at the federal level because the most important civil rights suits are brought in federal court,” says Garrett.
The database does not include laws that revised criminal procedures or substantive criminal offenses. Nor does it include executive orders, such as the 2022 executive order issued by President Joe Biden on “Advancing Effective, Accountable Policing and Criminal Justice Practices to Enhance Public Trust and Public Safety.”
The database, which is updated continually, includes more than 3,800 federal, state and local bills across a range of topics related to law enforcement, from 2018 through 2022. Of those, 569 or just 15 percent have been enacted. An additional 1,906 failed, with 1,354 pending as of the last check and two vetoed.
Of those that were enacted, the report found about 60 statutes relate to police use of force, 140 relate to behavioral health, 290 relate to training, 351 relate to data collection and 217 relate to budgets.
Enacted legislation includes five statutes concerning police in schools; seven regarding qualified immunity; 11 creating police study commissions; 11 regarding certification of police officers; 12 concerning biometric data; 12 regarding the right to record police; 13 regarding body cameras; five regarding biometric data; 38 regarding police training; 46 regarding budgets; 47 regarding oversight of police agencies; and 58 regarding police data collection.
“What is interesting and exciting about these past few years is that conversations around regulating police have gone in a number of different directions – from budgeting to facial recognition to new technologies to policing accountability data. It’s a much broader policy space, and legislation being introduced and passed reflects it,” says Garrett.
Creating the database took a team of 11 students to conduct research, as well as Sean Chen, assistant director for cataloging and metadata services, who with additional students created the database.
“It’s an enormous amount of work to be reading thousands of pieces of legislation and thinking about how to break them into topics and to code them properly and to check on the status of legislation and keep checking on legislation because legislative sessions last many months and a bill that seems to be stalled could suddenly be enacted,” Garrett says.
The Wilson Center plans to keep the database updated to serve as a repository for those conducting research.