Washington, DC – US President Joe Biden has signed an executive order that aims to advance “effective, accountable policing” in the United States and strengthen public safety, as the nation marks the second anniversary of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis.
Amid rising crime and failure of police reform legislation in Congress, Wednesday’s order seeks to balance the interests of police unions and civil rights groups but falls short of demands by Black Lives Matter protesters who took to the streets after Floyd’s death in 2020.
It directs a revision of use-of-force policies for 100,000 federal law enforcement officers, creates a national registry of police misconduct and limits the resale of US military equipment to state and local police departments, among other measures.
“As divided as this nation can feel, today we are showing the strength of our unity. This executive order delivered the most significant police reform in decades,” said Biden, flanked by civil rights leaders, US legislators and members of Floyd’s family during a White House signing ceremony.
“It comes a critical time. By building trust we can strengthen public safety and we can more effectively fight crime in our communities,” Biden said.
The event follows a horrific mass shooting at a primary school in Texas that killed 19 children and two adults, the latest in an epidemic of gun violence in the country and an alarming rise in homicides.
Biden has called for a renewal of the federal ban on assault weapons and improved background checks for legal gun buyers amid widespread public calls for stricter gun control laws.
The use of force by police is a continuing problem in the US, where more than 1,000 people are killed each year in fatal encounters with police. Last year was one of the deadliest on record, with 1,136 people killed, according to Mapping Police Violence, an advocacy group that tracks the data.
Reverend Al Sharpton, a leading Black civil rights activist in the US, called Biden’s executive order “an important step toward dealing with the issues of accountability and public safety”.
“George Floyd woke us up and we should not go back to sleep,” Sharpton said in a statement.
Udi Ofer, deputy national political director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), also called the order “an important and necessary step forward”, but warned that “words on paper alone will not end police violence”.
“More broadly, we need a complete re-imagination of public safety in America,” Ofer said in a statement.
Biden’s order directs federal law enforcement agencies to revise guidelines for officers on the use life-threatening tactics including no-knock warrants and chokeholds.
The use-of-force review is aimed at emphasising de-escalation and follows the US Department of Justice’s May 20 announcement that it will require federal officers to intervene if another officer is violating policy.
The order creates a national registry for officers who have been fired for abuse or misconduct to help prevent them from hopping from one jurisdiction to the next, where they often continue patterns of misconduct.
There are 18,000 police departments in the US, and participation in the registry is voluntary.
But Biden officials hope to use the availability of federal funds as an incentive to get local authorities to cooperate.
Addressing the trend towards the increased militarisation of police, Biden is also applying limits to the types of military weapons and heavy equipment that can be transferred to police departments.
Importantly for reform advocates who seek a re-imagination of the relationships between police and communities, the order offers support to cities and states seeking to implement alternative approaches.
Separately, Biden has rejected calls to defund the police and instead urged Congress to provide additional funding for police training.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Fraternal Order of Police issued a joint statement in support of Biden’s order, calling it a “good faith effort by all involved to reach accord without compromising any core values or issues”.
Biden’s order stops short of addressing the problem of “qualified immunity”, a judicial principle that many US courts have adopted to protect officers from civil lawsuits charging wrongful death and abuse. An earlier draft had included language calling for an end to qualified immunity, drawing opposition from police unions.
“It’s disappointing to see politicians do an almost an about-face on public safety,” said Melina Abdullah, a Black Lives Matter grassroots organiser.
“Politicians who were all championing Black Lives Matter – many of them were present at our demonstrations – now seemingly [are] in the pocket of police associations,” Abdullah told Al Jazeera on Tuesday.
Qualified immunity proved to be a roadblock to police reform legislation in Congress, with progressive lawmakers in the House of Representatives pushing for its elimination and Senate Republicans refusing to go along.