• Friday, Nov 27, 2020
  • Last Update : 06:08 pm

Push for police reform stutters ahead of US election

  • Published at 02:51 pm October 30th, 2020
George Floyd protest-police-Buffalo-
File Photo: An elderly man appears to be shoved by riot police during a protest against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Buffalo, New York, on June 4, 2020 Reuters

Several Minneapolis council members wanted the reform proposal to be on the ballot on November 3

Thomas Waltower, a computer coding trainer in Minneapolis, had hoped that outrage over the killing of African American George Floyd in the city in May would force an overhaul of the police. 

But "it started off with a big push; and now it's quiet," he said, as political parties fight shy of the issue ahead of Tuesday's presidential election.

Floyd suffocated under the knee of a white policeman. His death, captured on phone video, triggered huge protests throughout the country and put police reform high on the national agenda.

There were calls for comprehensive change -- ranging from better training to a controversial campaign to "defund the police," with the strongest move coming from the city itself.

In June, the Minneapolis City Council announced its intention to "dismantle" its police force and "reimagine a new model of public safety."

Several council members wanted the proposal to be on the ballot on November 3, when local referendums can also be voted on. But the plan was vetoed by an unelected commission.

Elsewhere in the United States, calls for ambitious police reforms to tackle racism and misconduct have also been toned down as the election nears.

"We don't hear anything about what they want to change," said Waltower, who trains girls in coding in Minneapolis' poor and predominantly Black northern neighbourhoods.

"It's out of sight, out of mind, but as African Americans, we feel it every day," he said, referring to racial prejudices he's seen from police, including often being stopped in his car.

Police numbers shrink

The focus has instead shifted to a spike in crime. Since the beginning of the year, the city has already recorded 65 homicides, up from 49 in all of 2019, and an upsurge in shootings.

We had a "horrific summer," Waltower told AFP. Students from the high school where he works were caught up in exchanges of gunfire.

For him, the reason is simple: there are fewer officers on the ground, which sends a "green light" to criminals.

Since Floyd's death and the violent riots and looting that followed, the city's police force has shrunk sharply.

At least 175 out of about 850 officers have resigned or gone on sick leave, according to a lawyer who represents many of them.

"The Floyd incident, the riots, the unrest, the total lack of support... has resulted in them just simply saying, 'I can't continue'," explained attorney Ron Meuser.

But Stuart Schrader, a sociology researcher at Johns Hopkins University, cautioned against simple explanations.

For him, the pandemic and its economic impact may have played a bigger role in the increase in crime, also seen in New York or Chicago.

Like many of the protesters, he believes that part of the law enforcement budget could be usefully redirected to social programs to combat inequality.

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