The New York City Police Department has been involved in more than its fair share of brutality and excessive force scandals over the years, but none of them prompted the same kind of national outrage as the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020. That incident sparked a nationwide wave of protests, and it also gave lawmakers the political capital they needed to push a police reform bill through a divided Congress.
The bipartisan bill was passed by the House of Representatives on Dec. 14. When it is signed into law by President Joe Biden, it will amend a 1968 federal law to provide the nation’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies with $70 million in annual funding to train officers on alternatives to using deadly force. The law received broad support because 20% of Americans have mental health issues that make them far more likely to be killed by a police officer. According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, which is a nonprofit group dedicated to mental health treatment, a person with an untreated mental health issue is 16 times more likely to die in a police officer-involved shooting.
The bill also tasks the Department of Justice with developing a curriculum to help law enforcement agencies, mental health professionals and civil rights groups work together to develop new approaches and training methods for dealing with the mentally ill. These methods are likely to be based on tactics used in countries like the United Kingdom where police officers do not carry firearms. In these countries, police brutality and excessive force are far less common.
Measures that could save lives are always welcome, but this bill lacks any provisions that would hold law enforcement agencies responsible for using unnecessary or excessive force against individuals struggling to cope with mental health issues. The amount of money being allocated to tackle the problem averages out to less then $4,000 per law enforcement agency, which seems woefully inadequate. However, its passage with bipartisan support does show that lawmakers can occasionally put their political differences aside.
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