Editor’s Note: Arick Wierson is a six-time Emmy Award-winning television producer and former senior media adviser to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He advises corporate and political clients on communications strategies in the US, Africa and Latin America. He tweets at @ArickWierson. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
The killing of 22-year-old Amir Locke earlier this month at the hands of a SWAT team officer from the Minneapolis Police Department has once again made the city the focal point of the ongoing national conversation around race and policing.
The 14-second video released by city officials shows how a Minneapolis SWAT unit, acting on a no-knock search warrant in a homicide investigation, stormed into the apartment where Locke was apparently asleep. He was then seen holding a gun when he woke up, just seconds before he was shot and killed. Police said Locke wasn’t named in any search warrants and attorneys for Locke’s family said he was in legal possession of his firearm.
Nevertheless, the bottom line is this: in a city still reeling from the impact of the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, yet again, an innocent Black life has been needlessly extinguished at the hands of Minneapolis law enforcement.
Sadder yet, the circumstances that led to Locke’s death – namely the issuance of a no-knock search warrant, a practice that disproportionately affects African Americans across the country – might have been avoided if the elected officials from both parties in Washington had taken police reform more seriously. Despite calls for change, federal lawmakers have failed to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act not once, but twice. While it would have banned only no-knock warrants in drug cases, the legislation would have been a significant first step towards police reform.
But, here we are again. In 2022, less than three years since an errant no-knock warrant led to the death of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and not even two years since the murder of George Floyd, another Black man has unnecessarily been robbed of his future at the hands of law enforcement, simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I live in the Minneapolis area and, as I wrote in the aftermath of the Floyd murder, the entire episode served as a rude awakening for me and countless other White Americans to the daily challenges confronted by people of color, especially African Americans, when it comes to interactions with law enforcement. I had hoped that after so many Black lives were lost to bad policing – Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Daunte Wright and Philando Castile, who have become posthumous household names in recent years – something would have been done by federal lawmakers to clean up, create national standards, outline best-practices and ultimately save lives.
But across the board, elected officials in Washington, along with some police departments around the country, have failed to act, and the result of their inaction is the continued loss of innocent young lives and families torn apart by senseless deaths.
How did we get here?
In June of 2020, less than a month after the Floyd murder, Democrats in both houses of Congress introduced a watershed bill which passed the House but didn’t make it through the then-Republican-controlled Senate. GOP lawmakers instead proposed a defanged version of the bill that Democrats blocked. Then, in 2021, the legislation, by then known as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, was reintroduced and passed the House again.
As the public uproar around the Black Lives Matter receded and concerns about the Covid-19 Delta variant spread, political support on the Hill for taking up the legislation slowly withered. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act aimed to set up a national registry of police misconduct, ban racial and religious profiling by law enforcement at the federal, state and local levels, and overhaul qualified immunity, which protects law enforcement from accountability.
Even South Carolina’s lone Black GOP Sen. Tim Scott, who had joined with Democrats in working on the legislation, was unable to find at least nine fellow Republicans willing to go along with him to reach the 60-vote mark that the legislation required to overcome the filibuster rule in the chamber. Moreover, without the support of Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona to scrap the antiquated filibuster rule so that the measure could pass by simple majority, there was simply no way to get the bill to President Joe Biden’s desk to become law. Scott eventually even turned against his own bill.
Among its most salient provisions, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act explicitly banned no-knock warrants for federal narcotics investigations and it wielded a fairly big stick over state and local law enforcement agencies by threatening to hold back federal dollars for those that refused to follow suit. And although many jurisdictions either cut back or altogether eliminated the use of no-knock warrants in the two years since the death of Breonna Taylor, Minneapolis was not one of them.
In fact, as the Minneapolis Star Tribune uncovered, since the start of the new year, Minneapolis police department officials had filed for and secured at least 13 applications for no-knock warrants – one more than the 12 standard search warrants that they obtained during that same time frame.
Although the no-knock warrant that lead to Locke’s shooting was not part of a drug-related investigation as would be stipulated in the bill, the mere threat of pulling federal dollars from local police budgets would have pointed a spotlight on the entire practice of no-knock warrants, likely helping diminish such frequent use of these highly aggressive tactics. Perhaps it wouldn’t have taken Locke’s death to get to where Minneapolis is now after its mayor, Jacob Frey, declared a moratorium on the practice altogether pending further study following Locke’s death.
However, now, as the 2022 midterms come into closer view, Democrats’ appetite for continuing to talk about police reform is waning amid a nationwide rise in urban homicide rates. This lack of will was on full display recently when President Biden visited New York City to support former NYPD cop and now mayor Eric Adams, calling for more money for police “to give you the tools, the training, the funding to be partners, to be protectors and to know the community.”
For all the impassioned speeches about the senseless deaths of Floyd, Taylor and so many other Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement, federal lawmakers have done absolutely nothing to prevent the cycle from repeating itself – something the world witnessed once again with the death of Amir Locke.
And sadly, without meaningful action in Washington, it’s bound to happen again.