When a police officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd in Minneapolis, other officers at the scene didn’t intervene, even while Floyd said he couldn’t breathe and stopped moving.
That lack of action is leading a growing number of states to compel police to stop misconduct by a fellow officer.
Since Floyd’s death, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Nevada, and New Jersey have passed laws requiring police to intervene when they see a fellow officer engaged in misconduct, said Katie Ryan of Campaign Zero, a group that encourages reforms to reduce police violence.
Previously, many laws were aimed at compelling police to only report misconduct. But activists say Floyd’s death makes clear that is not enough.
“The one essential component is that, in real time, a fellow officer has to intervene when witnessing another officer of any rank using excessive force,” Ryan said.
Oregon’s Legislature also passed a bill in a special session last year requiring intervention by an officer witnessing police misconduct. It also requires officers to report abuses to a supervisor.
This year, lawmakers are tweaking the new law to strengthen how the complaints are handled. It is sponsored by Representative Janelle Bynum, a Democrat who chairs the House subcommittee on equitable policing.
“For me, the original trigger was the George Floyd case,” said Bynum, who is Black and from a Portland suburb.
Portland was an epicenter of Black Lives Matter protests that erupted nationwide after Floyd’s death. On the night of September 5, a Black resident came to police officers to inform them their tear gas was seeping into his house, affecting his son and dog. One officer struck the man on the head with his baton, causing a concussion.
Other officers told their colleague the man was an area homeowner, not a protester. Bynum says that shouldn’t matter, that even if he was a protester, he shouldn’t be attacked unprovoked.
“He wasn’t doing anything. And so I never got really clear answers from the city about why that was OK,” Bynum said.
Police said that the incident was being investigated, but a half-year later they remain silent on the outcome or status.
“I have not been provided information to release about the incident,” Lt. Greg Pashley, a police spokesman, said in an email. “Generally, the Professional Standards Division does not provide updates about internal investigations.”
Bynum’s new bill aims to address such cases. Under a proposed amendment, it requires complaints to be filed with a direct supervisor of the reporting officer, their chain of command or with the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, or DPSST, which licenses law enforcement officers across the state. The bill sets a three-month deadline for investigations to be completed.
Under the proposed amendment, if an investigation confirms misconduct occurred, the officer’s unit must notify the DPSST, which would be tasked with establishing a database for reports of misconduct.
Failure by an officer to intervene or report misconduct are grounds for disciplinary action. The employer may not retaliate against a reporting officer.
In Maryland, Washington state
Maryland lawmakers are also working on legislation containing duty to intervene provisions. So is Washington state.
When the Washington state Senate passed such a bill in February, Republican senators opposed. Some said it should clarify that force being used by an officer should be excessive to an objective, reasonable observer, not just to the officer witnessing it. Democrats said that would cause an officer to think twice before intervening.
Senator Manka Dhingra, the bill’s sponsor, said good officers must be empowered to stop wrongdoing.
“They want to make sure they’re doing the right thing. This bill helps them do that,” Dhingra said.