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Biden orders police reforms two years after Floyd killing

The president issued an executive order to tackle misconduct. But he admitted it was a fallback option after a more sweeping bill failed to pass Congress.

President Biden, joined by Vice President Harris and other high-ranking U.S. officials, signs the executive order. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
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President Biden signed an executive order Wednesday aimed at preventing and punishing police misconduct, a step that came on the second anniversary of the police killing of George Floyd but fell well short of the sweeping reform legislation the White House had hoped would be law by now.

The order authorizes the formation of a national accreditation system for police departments, and it will create a national database of federal officers who have disciplinary records or face substantiated misconduct complaints. Federal law enforcement agencies will also update their use-of-force policies to emphasize de-escalation.

It’s a measure of what we can do together to heal the very soul of this nation, to address profound fear and trauma — exhaustion — that particularly Black Americans have experienced for generations,” Biden said. “And to channel that private pain and public outrage into a rare mark of progress for years to come.”

Biden was joined by civil rights leaders, police officials, members of Congress and family members of victims of police violence, including Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a Black woman killed by police in Louisville in 2020. The event came at a tense moment in the aftermath of several mass shootings, including one in which Black residents of Buffalo were attacked at a grocery store.

The order was the result of a months-long process that began in earnest after the collapse last September of congressional efforts to craft a bipartisan bill. Police groups denounced a leaked draft in January that cited “systemic racism” in the criminal justice system, and the order then went through several iterations after that based on input from police groups and civil rights advocates, according to White House officials.

Wednesday’s version reflected a careful balance. It noted that “the vast majority of law enforcement officers do these difficult jobs with honor and integrity,” while adding that “fatal encounters have disparately impacted Black and Brown people and other people of color.”

Two years after Floyd's death, little movement on reform

At the start of his remarks, Biden addressed the massacre that occurred on Tuesday in Texas, when an 18-year-old killed 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school, saying he and first lady Jill Biden would visit the community in the coming days.

“I’m sick and tired. I’m just sick and tired of what’s going on and what continues to go on,” Biden said, before escalating his rhetoric on the constitutional right to bear arms.

“The Second Amendment is not absolute,” he said. “When it was passed, you couldn’t own a — you couldn’t own a cannon. You couldn’t own certain kinds of weapons. It’s just always been limitations. But guess what? These actions we’ve taken before, they saved lives. And they can do it again.”

Advocates have been pressing the White House to take sweeping action to address systemic racism, with a focus on overhauling policing and the criminal justice system. They fear Biden has lost a sense of urgency about police reform after the collapse of legislation named for Floyd, a Black man whose death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer in 2020 set off social justice demonstrations nationwide.

Biden said he would have signed the executive order sooner but was worried that it would derail negotiations in the Senate. “Our Republican colleagues opposed any meaningful reform,” he said. “So we got to work on this executive order.”

He also alluded to Black leaders’ concern that the order falls short of what is needed. “I know progress can be slow and frustrating. And there is a concern that the reckoning on race inspired two years ago is beginning to fade,” he said toward the end of his remarks, urging the room of activists and lawmakers to keep pushing.

A year ago, on the first anniversary of Floyd’s death, the man’s family was also at the White House. Biden at the time assured Floyd’s relatives that he was still hoping to sign police reform legislation named in honor of their brother, father and uncle.

During that meeting last year, Biden told them he was frustrated that the legislation hasn’t passed but he said, according to those who attended, that he was willing to be patient and “make sure it’s the right bill, not a rushed bill.”

The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which passed the House but not the Senate, would have implemented a broader array of changes, including banning the use of chokeholds and no-knock warrants, as well as prohibiting racial profiling. The biggest sticking point was over ending “qualified immunity,” which makes it harder to sue individual law enforcement officers over their actions on the job.

Without legislation, Biden has little authority to directly control the practices of the nation’s 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies. And while he can change the policies of federal law enforcement agencies like the FBI, those changes can be reversed by a future president.

So Biden’s actions on Wednesday were intended in many ways to provide guidelines and incentives for local police.

The executive order authorizes the Justice Department to use federal grant funding to encourage local police to further restrict the use of chokeholds and no-knock warrants, steps that federal law enforcement agencies have already taken. The order also establishes new restrictions on the transfer of military equipment to local law enforcement agencies.

It says federal agents have a duty to intervene if they see other law enforcement officials using excessive force. That language echoes changes made by the Justice Department last week in its use-of-force policy, which was updated for the first time in 18 years.

Similarly, the order will encourage all law enforcement agencies to participate in the new misconduct database and to adopt de-escalation policies similar to those that federal agencies will put in place.

The White House does not have the power to make some changes long demanded by advocates, such as getting rid of qualified immunity, which protects police officers from being sued individually for misconduct and was included in the federal bill. Dozens of statehouse bills that would eliminate such immunity have also been defeated.

Other changes, like banning chokeholds or adopting stricter policies about when police can use force, similarly require action on the state or local level.

But Biden and Vice President Harris, while acknowledging Wednesday’s action did not go nearly as far as they wanted, still declared it an important moment. As Harris introduced Biden, she turned to the family members of those who’d died at the hands of police.

“You have felt so much pain and you have endured unimaginable grief. You have experienced the anguish of losing someone you love and cherish,” she said. “And yet you are here, as you have been throughout the days of your grief, standing selflessly full of grace and resilience to speak up, to speak out, often against odds, great odds to fight for a world where no one has to experience what you have been through.”

After signing the order, Biden called up Floyd’s daughter, Gianna.

“You’re getting so big!” he said to the 10-year-old.

He also recounted what she told him nearly two years ago. “ 'My dad is going to change history,’ ” Biden recalled her saying. “And he will, honey. He will.”