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Protesters Against Police Violence Have Made Their Voices Heard — and Lawmakers Are Listening

Elected officials in legislatures across the country have introduced a spate of bills that aim to improve police procedures and bridge the divide between officers and minority communities.

by Liz Fields
Jan 15 2015, 10:30pm

Photo by John Minchillo/AP

The deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and other black males at the hands of police officers last year set off a national firestorm, igniting a debate on race and policing and a wave of protesters demanding law enforcement reform around the country.

State legislatures have taken note of their rallying cries, with lawmakers introducing a spate of bills that aim to improve procedures and bridge the divide between the police and minority communities — but the potential benefits of their proposals are up for debate.

This week, nearly seven months after an NYPD officer put Garner in a chokehold that led to his death during an arrest in Staten Island, a group of Democratic New Jersey lawmakers introduced Bill A4081, which designates the use of chokeholds as "deadly force."

'Hands up, don't choke!': Non-indictment in Garner case sparks rallies across New York. Read more here.

Under the proposed law, police could only justify using a chokehold "to protect the officer or another person from death or serious bodily injury, to arrest or prevent the escape of a violent criminal, or to prevent the commission of a violent crime."

Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, one of the bill's sponsors, told local reporters she and her co-sponsors want to eliminate any "instance where there is confusion" about the appropriateness of the tactic.

The New Jersey Police Department and the state Attorney General's Office declined VICE News' requests for comment Thursday.

In the wake of demonstrations that flared-up after a grand jury failed to indict Officer Darren Wilson over the shooting death of unarmed teen Michael Brown, more than 40 bills have been introduced in the Missouri statehouse that specifically address law enforcement.

Among them is HB 395, also known as the End Racial Profiling Act of 2015, which gives the Attorney General license to take over any policing agency that receives more than 150 complaints of racial bias per year, and HB416 which proposes to establish a citizens police review board to audit police professional standards and investigate civilian deaths at the hands of police.

Gunshots, flames, and chaos in Ferguson following grand jury decision. Read more here.

Missouri's handling of the protests against Brown's shooting has also prompted the introduction of a bill whose provisions include requiring the governor to have a third-party human rights organization monitor police response to protests during a state of emergency, and requiring officers to wear detachable officer-mounted cameras to provide video evidence of arrests and increase accountability.

Officials in several other states have put forward or enacted proposals for measures that essentially police the police, particularly ones that fund or mandate the use of body cameras.

Calls to outfit police departments with such cameras have been heard from New York to Los Angeles, resonating to the steps of the White House. President Barack Obama recently proposed spending $75 million on 50,000 digital cameras to be distributed to officers.

In Cleveland, the police shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who held an air gun, led to a comprehensive review of the city's police department by the Justice Department. Its report, released in December, found widespread violations of policing procedure, incidences of racial profiling, and excessive use of force.

After the report's publication and statewide protests of Rice's shooting, Ohio formed a 15-member working group to examine police training.

Cleveland police union president says shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice was justified. Read more here.

But some elected officials have noted that measures such as body cameras could potentially create new concerns for civilians. Raymond Hull, a Democratic representative and police sergeant in Rhode Island, whose legislature is debating a camera bill, told the Associated Press that he has reservations about the policy.

"It's not so much that I'm looking to protect the cops," he said. "I'm more interested in protecting the privacy of people when I'm in their home."

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields