Months of tense, sometimes violent, protests after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis led voters to take their concerns from the streets to the polls, where they strongly supported nearly two dozen police reform measures across the nation.
Most of the votes in Tuesday’s election established citizen-led panels to review use of force incidents. Others sought more training for police and an end to long-criticized police practices like stop and frisk. Some went as far as taking control of a sheriff’s office.
Few of the measures were opposed, and those that were still passed by wide margins despite police groups spending far more to defeat them, according to a USA TODAY analysis of campaign finance reports.
Most of the initiatives came in Democrat-leaning cities.
“The people are speaking,” Shannon Hardin, president of the Columbus, Ohio city council said Wednesday after voters there backed the creation of a police review panel and created an independent inspector general’s office to investigate police misconduct. “I think elected officials, regardless of where they are around the country, are wise to listen.”
The message, Hardin and others say, is that voters want more accountability for police officers and other power players in the justice system. And public officials who voters deemed insensitive to racial injustice paid for it with steep losses in traditionally Republican areas with high-profile deadly incidents.
This was also clear in Democratic cities like Philadelphia, where three-quarters of voters approved a constitutional ban of the widely criticized practice of stop and frisk, which has been found to disproportionately impact people of color. Philadelphia Police Department policy already prohibits the practice, but a recent ACLU report showed it was still being used excessively on Black and Hispanic people.
In Georgia, voters ousted Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson over her handling of the case of Ahmaud Arbury, a Black man shot and killed while jogging down a neighborhood street. Johnson, a Republican, said she recused herself from the case because one of the suspects is a retired investigator from her office. Voters responded by voting for challenger Keith Higgins, an Independent, by a two-to-one margin.
In a suburban Austin, Texas, county, voters soundly rejected Sheriff Robert Chody in the wake of revelations that his deputies Tased to death Javier Ambler II as he screamed, “I can’t breathe!” Chody lost re-election despite spending $1.16 million, compared to his challenger’s $38,000.
All but one of the two dozen police reform ballot initiatives USA TODAY tracked passed. Even the measure that failed appeared to be a nod to growing calls to defund police. Voters in Tulelake, Calif. batted down a new tax to bring in more money for that area’s law enforcement agencies.
There have been concerns about the panels being toothless, which was one of the reasons King County, Washington voters passed a measure giving its panel subpoena power.
Other reforms in King County included giving families of those killed by law enforcement an attorney to represent them during an inquest and appointing rather than electing the sheriff. The latter was the most contentious measure and passed 57% to 43%.
The reform effort came after the 2017 shooting of Tommy Le, who was in the midst of a mental health crisis. Deputies fired after they said Le advanced toward them with a sharp object. It turned out to be a pen.
The Save Our Sheriff Committee spent more than $200,000 on efforts to defeat two of the proposals. Proponents spent about $5,000 campaigning for the passage of all four measures.
“The police guild here was up on TV with ads opposing them. They put yard signs all over the county saying, ‘Protect your right to vote’ and ‘Don’t defund the police,’ and I think that the people of King County just saw through that and are tired of the continual resistance to any sort of meaningful oversight and reform to policing,” said Rod Dembowski, chair of the Charter for Justice Committee and a King County council member.
Proposed reforms also sparked controversy in Los Angeles County in California.
There, voters passed a measure requiring at least 10% of the county’s general fund to go toward community programs and alternatives to incarceration.
An opposition group funded by law enforcement called “No on Measure J” spent more than $3 million to convince voters it was an effort to defund police. The “Yes on J” committee had some big-name contributors, including members of the Disney family and the wife of the CEO of Netflix. But most of its contributions were less than $500, and the committee spent about $1.5 million.
Yes On J Committee Treasurer Tommy Newman and Co-Chair Eunisses Hernandez said the vote came after years of attempts to get the county board of supervisors to prioritize alternatives to incarceration. Recent events nationally and locally made voters hungry for change, they said.
“This will outlive the political moment we’re in,” Hernandez said.
Newman said they’re hopeful the rest of the country will follow LA County’s example.
“Criminal justice system reform is really important, but unless you’re pairing it with affirmative investments in low-income and Black and brown communities, it’s not enough,” he said.
In Columbus, where city leaders introduced the citizen’s review panel ballot issue just hours after George Floyd-related protests ignited in that city, leaders saw no organized opposition. Forward Columbus, the group that pushed the measure, raised more than $300,000 to promote it, according to campaign finance reports.
Nick Bankston, the campaign manager for the initiative, said many business leaders donated to demonstrate their opposition to racial injustice.
“Contributing to this gave them a tangible way to show their employees that they were committed to what they said and weren’t just talking about it,” Banskton said.
Columbus saw a surge of protests in 2016 – first after two Columbus plainclothes officers fatally shot 23-year-old Henry Green, then three months later when another officer fatally shot 13-year-old Tyre King. None of the officers faced criminal charges.
In 2019, a police reform panel recommended establishing a review panel that would investigate fatal law enforcement encounters.
Floyd’s death was a catalyst for city leaders to put it on the ballot, said city council President Shannon Hardin.
Hardin and two other council members made headlines themselves this summer, when police officers pepper sprayed them as they marched with protesters.
Despite that experience, Hardin said most officers cringe at the notion of being labeled brutal or corrupt, and the police review panel will help protect them.
Hardin, a Black man who grew up on the south side of Columbus and was first elected to the city council in 2014, said Tuesday’s vote was just a foundational step in cities across America seeking to change the relationship between police and the public.
“I think what we’re going through now is a time that is akin to the civil rights movement,” Hardin said. “What we saw is that trust between police and some of our communities has been fleeting, but people are ready to try to rebuild.”
Published at Thu, 05 Nov 2020 12:06:00 +0000