Joe Biden signed an executive order he promised would usher in the “most significant police reform in decades” on Wednesday, the second anniversary of the murder of George Floyd.
With Congress deadlocked, Biden said he was using the powers of the presidency to advance his campaign promises and deliver police accountability and reform “that is real and lasting”.
Biden was joined at the White House for a signing ceremony by Floyd’s family as well as relatives of Breonna Taylor, who was killed when police executed a no-knock warrant at her apartment in 2020. In remarks preceding the signing, Biden praised them for their efforts to push for change even as they grieve.
“It’s not about their death but what we do in their memory that matters,” he said.
The executive order signed on Wednesday directs federal agencies to revise use-of-force policies, banning tactics such as chokeholds, restricting practices like no-knock warrants and promoting de-escalation techniques.
It also calls for the creation of a new national standard for accrediting police departments; establishes a national database to track police misconduct; further restricts the transfer of military equipment to police departments; and requires agencies to implement new tools to screen for inherent bias among officers as well as recruits, including those who promote unlawful violence or harbor white supremacist views.
The order, the president said, was “a measure of what we can do together to heal the very soul of this nation, to address profound fear and trauma, exhaustion that particularly Black Americans have experienced for generations”.
When the ceremony concluded, Biden invited Floyd’s young daughter, Gianna, to sit in his chair and handed her the pen he had used to sign the order. Remarking how tall she’d grown since the last time he saw her, Biden turned to the audience and recalled that Gianna told him the first time they met: “My daddy is gonna change the world.”
Biden began his remarks by addressing the massacre of 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas on Tuesday. “We’re here today for the same purpose – to come together and say, ‘Enough,’ ” he said.
Wednesday’s action, which will apply to more than 100,000 federal law enforcement officers, reflects the delicate balance Biden has sought to strike on policing after promising to do “everything in my power” address racism and excessive use of force. Civil rights groups and racial justice activists have pushed him to fulfill his pledge while Republicans, seizing on concern over crime, have sought to cast Democrats as soft on crime.
Floyd was killed on 25 May 2020, when a white Minneapolis police officer pinned his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes. Floyd, who was Black, was handcuffed and pleading that he couldn’t breathe.
His death ignited a national movement against racial injustice and dramatically shifted long-held views on racism and policing. But translating the outcry into legislative action has proved elusive for Democrats, who narrowly control both chambers of Congress.
Last year, the House passed legislation named in Floyd’s honor. But negotiations stalled in the evenly divided Senate, where 60 votes are needed to pass most legislation.
Speaking before Biden on Wednesday, the vice-president, Kamala Harris, said Senate Republicans who opposed the legislation “walked away from their moral obligation” to address an issue that “caused millions of Americans to march in the streets”.
White House officials said the order had been finalized after more than 100 hours’ work and as many meetings with stakeholders including law enforcement officials, lawmakers, civil rights and civil liberties groups and families of victims of police violence.
The resulting order is far narrower in scope than was initially sought, but civil rights leaders – and some major police groups – welcomed the policies.
“We know full well that an executive order cannot address America’s policing crisis the same way Congress has the ability to but we’ve got to do everything we can,” Derrick Johnson, the president of the NAACP, who attended Wednesday’s signing ceremony, said in a statement.
“There’s no better way to honor George Floyd’s legacy than for President Biden to take action by signing a police reform executive order.”
Derek Chauvin, the officer who pinned Floyd to the ground with his knee, was convicted of murder and sentenced to 22 and a half years in prison. Three other former officers were convicted in federal court of violating Floyd’s civil rights.
The order applies only to federal agencies. Biden does not have direct authority over state and local agencies. But White House officials said the order incentivizes law enforcement agencies at every level to participate in the national police registry and to adopt the new accountability standards and de-escalation policies established by the order.
Democrats are navigating a complicated political landscape on the issue of policing and crime with less than six months before the midterm elections. Republicans have sought to blame Democrats for rises in violent crime in some cities, a dubious claim that they tie to calls made by activists after Floyd’s death to slash police funding.
As a candidate and as president, Biden has denounced efforts to “defund the police”, repeating, to the frustration of some in his party, that departments need more funding, not less. But with election day looming, Republicans have used those calls to accuse Democrats of being
When a draft version of the order was leaked earlier this year, some law enforcement groups found some of the language objectionable. Particularly offensive to them, according to a February report in the New York Times, was a reference to “systemic racism” within US criminal justice.
A White House official said the text had been revised and improved based on input from stakeholders but would not say if the document made explicit reference to systemic racism.
The official said the order “does not hide from the truth that we need reform in policing and in our larger criminal justice system, and that includes addressing systemic racism”.
The final version of the order Biden signed on Wednesday did use the contested term, making clear reference to racial disparities across policing and the criminal justice system which were explicitly identified as consequences of “systemic racism”.
The order said: “It is time that we acknowledge the legacy of systemic racism in our criminal justice system and work together to eliminate the racial disparities that endure to this day. Doing so serves all Americans.”