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State Supreme Courts Weigh In on Police Reform

Recent state decisions have increased accountability for law enforcement and upheld laws aimed at curbing police violence. 


Four years after George Floyd’s murder by police, efforts at police reform have slowed — but not stalled.

Floyd was killed on in May 2020 when a police officer knelt on his neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds during an arrest in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The officer suspected Floyd had used a counterfeit $20 bill in a nearby shop. Floyd’s murder sparked a social movement that elevated the national profile police reform.

People, organizations, and government entities across the country demanded measures to reduce police violence, increase accountability, build community trust in police, and more. A year after Floyd’s death, at least 30 states and Washington, DC, had enacted one or more statewide legislative policing reforms, on issues ranging from mandatory body cameras to increased civilian oversight of police forces. Calls to reallocate funding from traditional policing to mental health and other social services gained momentum.

The conventional narrative on the movement is that most of these goals haven’t been met. For example, the federal George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would have established national use-of-force standards, created a national registry to track police misconduct, and made it easier to prosecute police officers, never passed. And killings of civilians — especially Black people — by police are still regularly in the news.

But after the bill failed in Congress, President Biden signed an executive order requiring federal law enforcement agencies to ban chokeholds, implement stronger use-of-force policies, and submit officer misconduct records into a new national database, among other measures. The order also included incentives for state and local reforms.

And dotted throughout recent state jurisprudence are decisions that have the potential to make policing safer for civilians — both by upholding specific legislation passed in the wake of Floyd’s murder and by strengthening state constitutional protections against law enforcement abuses.

The Massachusetts high court, for example, in 2022 upheld legislation mandating the creation of a five-member commission to oversee the Springfield Police Department. The ordinance was part of a nationwide trend toward greater civilian oversight of police, usually achieved through local ordinances or ballot measures. It was passed in response to several high-profile instances of brutality by local officers and a U.S. Department of Justice report detailing a pattern of excessive force among police in the town.

But the mayor refused to implement the ordinance, claiming it infringed upon his executive powers, and the council sued. The state high court found no separation of powers issue, explaining that “the division of powers here reflects the mutual responsibility and ultimate accountability of the executive and legislative branches of municipal government over policing in their city.”

The Massachusetts high court issued another decision earlier this year that could curb police wrongdoing. In Graham v. District Attorney for Hampden District, the court ruled in that district attorneys have a duty under the state and federal constitutions to inquire about and disclose evidence of past misconduct — including violence — by police officers who may serve as witnesses in a prosecution. The court explained that such evidence could be exculpatory because it undermines an officer’s credibility. The court made clear that these duties apply even where an officer had simply been present during an instance of misconduct involving multiple officers where it is unclear which officer was the offender.

These duties “unquestionably” were triggered by the DOJ report on the Springfield police department’s pattern of excessive force, the court held. According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts — which represented the plaintiffs — the decision was the first in the country to hold that DOJ pattern-or-practice findings trigger duties under state law to investigate and disclose the misconduct alleged by the DOJ.

Meanwhile, in New York, the high court upheld city legislation late last year barring officers from intentionally obstructing someone’s breathing by “compress[ing] the diaphragm.” The law was first introduced in 2015 following the death of Eric Garner — who died after a New York City police officer placed him in an prolonged chokehold — but did was not passed until June 2020.

The police union plaintiff in Police Benevolent Association of the City of New York. v. City of New York argued that the law was unconstitutionally vague because officers could not be expected to know whether they were compressing the diaphragm of a person they were attempting to arrest. They also maintained that the law was preempted by other state laws that already banned chokeholds. A lower court agreed that the law was too vague, explaining that “the phrase ‘compresses the diaphragm’ cannot be adequately defined as written.”

But in November 2023, the state’s highest court upheld the law and dismissed the police union’s claims. The court determined that an “ordinary person” would understand what it means to apply pressure by sitting, kneeling, or standing in a manner that “impedes the person’s ability to breathe by causing interference with the regular movement of the diaphragm.” Moreover, the court said, New York City police officers were trained on what it meant to obstruct air flow. The court also rejected the preemption claim, noting that “the mere fact that a local law may deal with some of the same matters touched upon by state law does not render the local law invalid.”

Not all local laws aimed at improving police practices have passed judicial scrutiny. The same day it upheld the anti-chokehold law, the New York state high court found that a Rochester law creating an all-civilian panel to discipline police officers was invalid because it conflicted with a general law mandating collective bargaining by police unions for police discipline.

Some recent state supreme court decisions increase law enforcement accountability by limiting or rejecting qualified immunity, which blocks liability for abuses by state actors such as police officers unless the defendant violated “clearly established” constitutional rules — a showing that can be extremely difficult for a plaintiff to make. In 2022, the Nevada Supreme Court rejected qualified immunity for violations of the state constitution in a case related to the prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. Other states have accomplished the same through legislation.

“The result of this case will be to help more plaintiffs get meaningful remedies against government officials,” Professor Marcus Gadson wrote after the Nevada decision came down.

While the transformative change in policing that many Americans hoped for following Floyd’s murder remains elusive, efforts at police reform are ongoing. State courts play an important role in those efforts.

Sabrina Alli is senior social media strategist at the Brennan Center for Justice.

Kathrina Szymborski Wolfkot is a senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice and managing editor of the State Court Report.

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