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George Floyd’s murder led to a national reckoning on policing, but efforts have stalled or reversed

Philonise Floyd explains what it means to carry on his brother's legacy even when states like Florida are doubling-down on laws that seem to reverse police reforms.

Four years ago, protests erupted across the country after millions of Americans watched the chilling video of the murder of George Floyd — a Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeling on his neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds.

In the aftermath, Chauvin was convicted of murder and calls for a nationwide reckoning on issues related to racism and police violence reverberated in city after city. But in the years since then, some of those efforts at change, like the federal George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, have stalled. In several states, calls to pass criminal justice reforms to address decadeslong racial disparities have stalled or been met with tough-on-crime rhetoric and policies.

For Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, the initial calls for change after his brother’s death were touching.

“The fact that he was stolen from us. We still can’t get over that,” he said in an interview. “So many people, they felt the same pain all across the world.”

 But as he talked about the lack of change and his inability to lobby Congress to pass the federal bill named after his brother, Philonise Floyd broke down in tears.

“It’s different. It is really like you don’t have the understanding of how you can sit there and witness that somebody murdered your brother and four years later, it still hasn’t been any change,” he said while weeping. “You’re still trying to pass the same law for your brother. And the city and the world stood with you, and we still haven’t gotten, like, any kind of change. What is it going to take?”

In recent years, many conservative states — and some progressive parts of the country — have passed tough-on-crime policies.

 In Georgia, lawmakers rolled back 2018 criminal justice reforms, which were supported by Republicans, and added cash bail requirements for 30 new crimes this year. In Tennessee, lawmakers passed a bill to block some reforms related to how police handle traffic stops, including a Memphis law enacted following the killing of Tyre Nichols, a young Black man who died after several police officers violently beat him.

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Maryland’s Democratic Gov. Wes Moore signed into law a controversial juvenile justice bill that allows the state to prosecute children as young as 10 who are accused of serious offenses. Oregon passed a bill recriminalizing possession of small amounts of drugs, a move that reverses key parts of an earlier law that did just the opposite.

Critics of tough-on-crime approaches point to Florida as ground zero for the new measures. There, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has championed and signed several bills into law related to police. Those measures include an “anti-rioting” law that may curtail protests, which is currently embroiled in a legal challenge at the Florida Supreme Court.

“We saw really unprecedented disorder and rioting throughout the summer of 2020, and we said that’s not going to happen here in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said before signing the bill into law in 2021.

Meanwhile, two other laws — one that limits the power of police civilian review boards in the state, and another that mandates that anyone observing or filming first responders stay 25 feet away when asked — are expected to take effect later this year.

Since his election in 2020, Republican state Rep. Tom Fabricio has supported the measures and said he is serving the will of his constituents.

“We want to have Florida be a law-and-order state,” he said. “We don’t want abusive law and order. But we want more law and order, and I believe that’s what we’ve been able to provide to the Florida residents.”

Republican state Rep. Alex Rizo sponsored the “Halo Bill,” concerning bystanders filming first responders, which is expected to take effect next January.

When asked whether the bill was part of the backlash to calls for reform after a bystander’s video of Floyd’s death emerged, Rizo said it was not and that the bill “allows for a safe space for the first responder to go ahead and perform their duties.”

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“The overarching theme and all of these laws that we’ve passed over the last four years is safety for all Floridians — that includes whether you wear a badge or you don’t,” Rizo said.

The lawmaker added that civilian review boards across the state should be abolished and that police department oversight be handled by elected officials like city councilors and mayors.

“You cannot delegate responsibility, and ultimately, the elected leaders, the people that put their name out there and ask for that position, they’re the ones that should be held accountable in the end,” Rizo said.

Rodney Jacobs, the executive director of Miami’s Civilian Investigative Panel, which oversees independent investigations of police misconduct, vehemently disagrees. He said the work of the panel, which handles some 300 complaints a year, is vital to protecting communities.

“For so long, people have been asking for police accountability for misconduct,” he said. “I think the further we get away from implementing that, the further we get away from having the will to do that constructive work. We will never bridge the gaps between our law enforcement in our community.”

Some believe that gap was made larger in March when Miami police shot Donald Armstrong after his mother called to get him help during a mental health crisis. Police said Armstrong was waving a sharp object. His lawyer, Larry R. Handfield, said he was holding a small conductor baton. Armstrong is now paralyzed and in jail.

Handfield also told NBC News that he plans to file a civil suit against the city of Miami. But, he said, he also wants to resolve the misdemeanor probation violation charge quickly so Armstrong can get help.

Preston Baldwin, who lived a block away from Armstrong, filmed the shooting and said he is glad he was able to help provide context for what happened. Baldwin said police should have worked harder to de-escalate the incident and not shot Armstrong.

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“I felt like if something was to happen, we would need some unbiased eye,” he said. “It’s heavy because it’s like, dude, it really could be me. Like I could be this guy. It only takes one second to mistake somebody, one second to misconstrue words.”

Baldwin moved to Miami from Minnesota, where he protested after Floyd’s death. Now, he’s left wondering what’s next.

“We’re kind of like, we’re in a circle,” he said. “Back to police shootings being the main thing on the news again, you know, people arguing or people not liking each other about race or whatever. We went right back to the same thing that started all this.”

Still, for Rachel Gilmer, a leader in the Dream Defenders social justice group, the pushback on efforts for change fuels her to keep going.

“Young people, like our generation, have the most radical, progressive vision for the future of this country,” she said. “All of the backlash that we’re seeing against that vision also speaks to the power of that vision, and the popularity of that vision.”

Meanwhile, Philonise Floyd and his wife, Keeta, who have started a civil rights organization, now work with many other families affected by police violence. They said they are determined to keep fighting in George Floyd’s name as his young daughter, Gianna, grows up without a father.

“It seems like now everybody’s just trying to sweep it under the rug as best we can because we don’t talk about it anymore,” Keeta Floyd said. “Like, ‘Oh, they’re not as angry as they used to be.’ But we are. We lost George.”

Her husband echoed those sentiments. “I’m going to continue to turn my pain into purpose,” Philonise Floyd said. “And this bill needs to be passed because my brother’s blood is all on this bill. … At the end of the day, if you want to make change, show it to me.”

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