Analysis: Thirty-four States Enacted 79 Laws Affecting Policing from 2015-2016

New York, NY— The Vera Institute of Justice today released a review of state-level changes in policing policy and practice enacted in 2015 and 2016. The report revealed that there has been a significant uptick in states’ actions around policing, including clarifying and improving policies around use-of-force and misconduct cases and improving tracking of police operations around the use of body-worn cameras in order to both protect the public and police officers. Overall, 34 states and the District of Columbia made at least 79 changes to their laws governing policing in the last two years, compared to at least 20 bills total in the prior three-year period. The most widespread trend was to document police operations—30 geographically and politically diverse states passed such laws.

Nationwide, policing has become a major focus after high-profile deaths of people of color, many of them unarmed, brought long-standing tensions and increased scrutiny of law enforcement tactics to the surface. Additionally, killings of officers in New York City, Dallas, and Baton Rouge increased concerns about officer safety. As a result, government stakeholders and communities have begun to seek ways to increase the public confidence in law enforcement that is critical to public safety. While local jurisdictions remain the main engine of police reform efforts—there are more than 18,000 individual police departments nationwide that are governed by cities and counties—federal and state governments also play a role. The new President’s administration has promised “law and order,” and a number of Congressional proposals seek reform through a variety of tacks, from ending racial profiling by federal law enforcement agencies, to requiring mandatory sentences for anyone convicted of committing a violent act against a police officer. In the meantime, states have begun to supplement and accelerate local action.

To Protect and Serve: New Trends in State-Level Policing Reform, 2015-2016 found that state legislators have focused reform efforts in the following three areas:

  • improving policing practices around use of force, profiling of people of color, and responding to vulnerable populations;  
  • documenting police operations through body-worn cameras, protections for public recordings of police, and requirements for reporting data; and  
  • improving accountability in instances of police use of force and misconduct, especially for those incidents that result in death.

The report provides concise summaries of representative reforms in each of these areas, serving as a guide for other state policymakers looking to enact similar changes. 

“The fact that two-thirds of states have reformed their laws governing policing in just two years is reflective of a growing, bipartisan trend toward criminal justice reform across many issues,” said Ram Subramanian, Vera's editorial director and co-author of the report. “By drawing attention to how states—both red and blue—are responding to a recent wave of public discourse on policing, we hope that this report will serve as a guide to other lawmakers looking to make similar strides.”

“High-profile and tragic incidents in the past few years have surfaced questions about the role of police in our society, and how to ensure the safety of the civilians they serve and protect as well as officers themselves” said Rebecca Neusteter, Vera’s director of policing. “This report shows how states are embarking on a new direction for policing—one that is more transparent, impartial, and supportive of the wellbeing of both officers and community members.”

The report identifies several legislative trends that demonstrate how states are taking action to reform their policing practices:

  • Limiting use-of-force: Although police actions that result in serious injury or death are rare, recent high-profile incidents involving use-of-force have inflamed police-community relations and, in turn, demoralized some police officers who feel undervalued. At least five states have enacted laws that limit the use of certain types of force, like chokeholds, or improve police training on the legal boundaries of justifiable force and alternative de-escalation tactics so that officers are better equipped to handle these difficult situations.

Example: Illinois SB 1304 (2015) prohibits the use of chokeholds and requires more training on arrest and control tactics, proper use of law enforcement authority, procedural justice, human rights, and implicit bias.

  • Integrating body-worn cameras: Because they provide an objective record of a broad range of police-civilian encounters, many police departments are beginning to see body-worn cameras as a potential tool for increasing public trust in law enforcement as well as clearing officers from unwarranted complaints. At least 26 states passed legislation related to the use of body-worn cameras, including to define when recording is required, if the public can access the footage, and whether citizens should be informed they are being recorded.

Examples: Georgia HB 976 (2016) mandates that certain body-worn or vehicle camera footage—including that which involves criminal investigations, a vehicle accident, an arrest, or an officer’s use of force—must be kept for a minimum of 30 months. Recordings of other incidents must be retained for 180 days. Additionally, the legislation ensures that a law enforcement officer is not civilly liable for the depictions obtained through these recordings and they do not have a duty to redact or obscure people or information captured in the recording.

Utah HB 300 (2016) requires law enforcement agencies using body-worn cameras to have written policies governing their use. It also stipulates that cameras should be visible to the person being recorded and turned on prior to any law enforcement encounter, and that the recordings are generally private records except in specific circumstances, including where they feature an officer firing a weapon.

  • Training on vulnerable populations: Although police officers are regularly called upon to serve as de facto health care responders, many are not trained to effectively deal with people suffering physical, mental, or behavioral health crises and to de-escalate violent situations. At least six states passed measures aimed at improving responses to vulnerable populations to improve the safety of both law enforcement and individuals in crisis, including the creation of dedicated Crisis Intervention Teams (CITs), in which officers are specially trained to handle people in crisis in partnership with community-based treatment providers.

Example: Washington SB 5311 (2016) requires that all new full-time law enforcement officers receive crisis intervention training, including  tools and resources so that they can effectively respond to a broad range of crisis situations, in order to increase the safety of both law enforcement and civilians in crisis.

  • Improving data collection and reporting: Increased attention to officer-involved shootings has brought to light a longstanding lack of reliable data on how often police use force. Recognizing the importance of being able to measure the frequency of and learn from such incidents, at least 11 states passed laws that require police departments to collect and report information related to officer-involved shootings, deaths, or other incidents of force.  

Example: Texas HB 1036 (2015) requires the collection of information on all officer-involved shootings that result in death or injury, as well as the information on the shooting deaths or injuries of officers. A report containing this information must be published publicly.  

  • Increasing accountability for police misconduct: Most cases of civilian deaths by police do not result in trials or guilty verdicts because the law gives wide discretion to police officers to protect themselves and the public. However, there has been increasing public concern that current police accountability systems are not sufficiently objective or independent. Several states have strengthened independence or transparency in police misconduct investigations, including by requiring that they be carried out by a special prosecutor or by enacting grand jury reform.

Example: Nebraska LB 1000 (2016) requires that at least two investigators reviewing a fatal police encounter come from agencies other than the one involved in the incident. It also mandates that in cases where no charges are brought, the transcripts and exhibits from the grand jury must be made available to the public.   Other legislative trends covered in the report include, but are not limited to: protecting the rights of the public to record interactions with officers, improving responses to violence against law enforcement, and outlawing racial and other prejudicial profiling by law enforcement officers.   

The report is the latest in Vera’s series of state legislative trends reports dating back to 2009. Vera’s work in policing is expanding this year with several new initiatives which will develop tools and systems aimed at helping police earn respect in communities where confidence in law enforcement has been broken, as well as improve officer safety and wellbeing. These include the Compstat 2.0 initiative to help law enforcement agencies integrate service-oriented policing strategies with existing data-driven crime monitoring processes.