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Police Reform Efforts Spark Legislative Backlashes

Police forming a line during a public disturbance.
By Richard Dahl on April 27, 2021 1:26 PM

Many Americans have taken heart that the murder conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin will lead to police reform around the country.

Even though prosecutors made it clear that their focus was on one defendant and not police in general, some legal experts said the implication of the verdict is clear. University of Nebraska law professor Samuel Walker, for instance, told USA Today that although the prosecutors' argument is true, “I think there will be a response and that mayors and governors will demand more policing reforms."

Even before the verdict, dozens of states had passed more than 140 new police reform laws this legislative session, according to The New York Times.

Other states and other governors, however, see things differently. Alarmed by civil disturbances that broke out last year following George Floyd's death at the hands of Chauvin, these states and governors are seeking to crack down on protesters – and as part of that goal, they want to give police more protection and power instead of less.

Florida Leads the Way

At the forefront of this movement is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is already being considered one of the front-runners for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

Last September, DeSantis unveiled his proposed “Combatting Violence, Disorder and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act," an extremely broad and controversial measure that was immediately attacked by critics as unconstitutional but endorsed by supporters as the kind of get-tough action the country needs.

That measure became law under a simpler name, the Combating Public Disorder Act, when DeSantis signed it into law on April 19 following its passage by the state senate, 23-17, the previous week. Two days later, a group of civil-rights attorneys filed a federal lawsuit challenging the law's constitutionality, and more lawsuits are expected.

Here are a few of the law's controversial provisions:

  • Any local efforts to “defund police" can be overturned. The law allows state attorneys in each judicial district or a member of a city commission to appeal police budget reductions. The appeal would then be reviewed by the governor's office, which could then order further review by a commission that includes the governor and the state cabinet.
  • Anyone driving through a group of protesters who are blocking a road could be granted civil legal immunity.
  • Any protesters blocking a highway may be charged with committing a felony.
  • All Confederate monuments are protected.
  • Police have broad new powers to issue misdemeanor arrests during protests.
  • The law creates a new crime, “mob intimidation," defined as three or more people “acting with common intent" to threaten someone into taking their position against their will.
  • It also creates another new crime, “aggravated rioting," which carries a sentence of up to 15 years in prison.
  • It prevents people who are arrested for rioting from bailing out of jail until their first court appearance.
  • It also makes any city civilly liable for bodily and property damage if it restricts police from protecting property.

Protest Restrictions and Police Protections Will Expand

If those provisions have taken your breath away, they were probably meant to do so. And you might get used to it. Other states are taking, or intend to take, similar steps.

Spurred mostly by last year's protests, Republican lawmakers have introduced 81 anti-protest bills in 34 states this year as of April 22, according to The New York Times. Elly Page, a senior legal adviser at the International Legal Center for Not-for-Profit Law, told the Times that's twice the usual number.

The most recent, on April 21, is an Oklahoma law, HB 1674, which resembles Florida's. It protects drivers who “unintentionally" hit protesters or who do while “fleeing from a riot" and creates a misdemeanor penalty punishable by up to a $5,000 fine for people who obstruct “normal use" of a street or highway. It also requires that any organization that “conspires" with individuals who are found guilty of certain offenses will be fined 10 times the maximum amount the individual would face.

Like Oklahoma and Florida, a pending bill in Iowa, SF 534, would provide immunity to drivers who strike protesters if they do so while “exercising due care."

In Indiana, Senate Bill 34 would prohibit anyone who is convicted of rioting from future employment by state or local government and would make them ineligible for “certain state and local benefits."

In Minnesota, SF 2381 would also make anyone convicted of rioting from receiving any form of state assistance, including student loans, rental assistance, and medical assistance.

And in Iowa, SF 479 would penalize any local entity that tries to defund the police.

Where is the Constitutional Line?

After signing the new Florida law on April 19, DeSantis hailed it as “the strongest anti-rioting, pro-law-enforcement piece of legislation in the country. There's just nothing even close."

Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls said that in enacting the new law, Florida is “standing up to mob violence and standing behind our law enforcement officers who risk their lives every day to protect and serve."

But Vera Eidelman, a lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union, told The New York Times that the actions in Florida and elsewhere are “consistent with the general trend of legislators' responding to powerful and persuasive protests by seeking to silence them rather than engaging with the message of the protests. If anything, the lesson from the last year, and decades, is not that we need to give more tools to police and prosecutors, it's that they abuse the tools they already have."

Everyone agrees that Americans have a right to protest if they are peaceful about it. The U.S. Constitution guarantees it. But do these new “anti-rioting" laws, like the one in Florida, properly recognize that right as their most important consideration? Or do they seek to weaken that right?

Perhaps the constitutional legal challenges will provide an answer.

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