The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Police accountability measures flood state legislatures after Ferguson, Staten Island

“Black Lives Matter” is drawn on the ground in chalk as protesters demonstrate against racism in the “Reclaim MLK” march on Jan. 19 outside the Ferguson Police Department in Ferguson, Mo. (Michael Thomas/AFP)

More than a dozen states are considering new legislation aimed at increasing police accountability in the wake of incidents in Ferguson, Mo.; Staten Island, N.Y.; and Cleveland that left unarmed black men dead at the hands of officers.

Dozens of bills addressing body cameras for police have been filed in at least 13 states. Other proposed measures would change the way police departments report officer-involved shootings, racial profiling and the way courts deal with low-level offenders.

“There is a concrete coherent legislative agenda that we are pushing for,” said Cornell Brooks, president and chief executive of the NAACP. “We’ve been doing this from state capital to state capital, as well as here in Washington, D.C.”

Some of the proposed responses have bipartisan support. In other cases, familiar partisan divides between Republicans and Democrats, and civil rights groups and police organizations, are emerging and slowing down legislative action.

Those partisan fissures are exacerbated by events beyond Ferguson, Staten Island and Cleveland. In Albuquerque, N.M., two officers were charged last month with first-degree murder in the 2014 shooting of a homeless, mentally ill man who had been camping illegally. In Springfield, Mo., a police officer was shot in the head while on patrol; he suffered career-ending injuries.

“Our citizens deserve to be and feel safe, and our law enforcement deserve our respect and support,” said Missouri Rep. Lincoln Hough (R). “I say all that to illustrate the complexity of these issues. There is not a one size fits all approach to this issue.”

Brooks and other civil rights leaders have vowed 2015 will be a year of legislative strategy, pressuring statehouses to pass state-level laws concerning special prosecutors and grand juries while pushing for broader legislative steps in Washington D.C.

Body camera legislation is at the forefront of that push. Civil rights groups like the NAACP, The Advancement Project and the American Civil Liberties Union are behind many of the body camera proposals, and the Obama administration has allocated $263 million for a three-year program to expand training for local police departments, including $75 million that would purchase 50,000 cameras through a matching program.

“We’re seeing a lot of discussion about body cameras for police officers, both on the national level and in the states,” said Denise Lieberman, a senior attorney at The Advancement Project.

The exact contours of body camera legislation are different in each state. Richard Williams, a criminal justice policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said states are ironing out just which law enforcement officers will have to wear body cameras, when recording will be required, and how to square recording policies with eavesdropping laws that require permission from both parties and the Fourth Amendment.

But even with those details yet to be squared away, body camera legislation is the response to the police incidents most likely to be successful. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle support body camera legislation, and police unions and rank-and-file officers back cameras, too, according to William Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations.

Lawmakers in California, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia have already filed or pre-filed measures that would require at least some law enforcement officials to wear body cameras, according to Williams’s tally.

In Missouri, where tensions remain high after the shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson in the summer, body cameras are but one of the measures that will be debated. Democrats and Republicans have introduced more than 40 bills involving changes to police and court procedure. Some would require a special prosecutor to be appointed when police are involved in shootings. Others would change the funding formulas for municipal courts, which get much of their funding from traffic stops that civil rights groups say disproportionately target minorities.

“There’s so much stuff out here” in response to Brown’s death, said Missouri state Rep. Clem Smith (D), who represents a district in the St. Louis area just south of Ferguson. “The [political] temperature is a little different.”

In Washington, Congress passed the Death in Custody Reporting Act in 2014, a law requiring police departments to report the details of any person who dies while under police supervision.

Police officer organizations take a mixed view to many of the reforms being proposed. While many unions back body cameras, Johnson said other proposals raise concerns of overreaction.

“Some politicians certainly reacted, in our view, more to the violent protests than they did to the grand jury findings [in Ferguson and Staten Island]. We found that lamentable,” Johnson said. “Most of what we’ve seen, from our view, is not a constructive reaction.”

Advocates say the cameras are a good first step, though far from the only one needed to improve police and community relations.

“We really want to give the caveat that body cams aren’t enough. They’re fine, they can certainly help document situations,” The Advancement Project’s Lieberman said. “They don’t get to the underlying issues of community-based policing and accountability for the use of force.”

But beyond the low-hanging fruit of body camera legislation, the partisan fissures of the law enforcement vs. civil rights debate has some lawmakers concerned that an opportunity to improve broken police-community relations may be missed.

The emerging partisanship “slows the chance of it, as far as deep systematic change,” said Smith, the Missouri Democrat. “I don’t think there will be any major systematic change.”

Wesley Lowery contributed to this report.