On May 25th, a police officer killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Since then, protests, marches, and demonstrations have taken place around the country, bringing renewed attention to police brutality and racial injustice.
A major question among movement participants, supporters, and casual observers is – will these protests lead to meaningful police reform? More broadly, can the protests that have taken place since 2013 as part of the Movement for Black Lives spark infrastructural change? Our research, along with early signs from local, state, and federal governments, provide some indication that the protests will be effective in changing policing practices.
States like Connecticut, Iowa, and New York, as well as cities including Houston, Louisville, and Phoenix have taken steps to reduce police violence or race-based targeting in recent weeks. Legislation is moving through legislative chambers in several other states. Early evidence suggests that legislators are, at least somewhat, responsive to the demands of protesters and movement leaders. These anecdotes also align with our own work and other scholarship, which shows a relationship between movement activity and policy reform.
BLM protests are effective.
Working with an outstanding team of undergraduate research assistants, we created two original data sets. The first data set includes every police reform bill introduced by every state legislature since 2013. The second data set includes every article on policing and police-related protests written in the largest newspapers since 2013. This starting point is significant because it predates the Ferguson uprising of 2014 after the murder of Michael Brown, which sparked heightened focus on police brutality among media and political figures.
There was about four times as much attention on protests last month than at any point during the history of the Black Lives Matter movement. This matters because it signals to legislators the salience of police reform to constituents across the country, which can lead to greater policy responsiveness from elected officials.
Building from prior scholarship, we theorized that media coverage of protests could be a mechanism through which protesters can transmit their preferences to legislators, which may then lead to policy changes. Our findings, published last year, support this hypothesis. Indeed, we find substantial correlation between media attention on policing-related protests and legislative activity on policing. Among a set of major newspapers, the total number of articles related to policing published in 2014 was a dramatic 14 times greater than in 2013. This heightened media attention was sustained in 2015. We found similar spikes in legislative activity, with all 50 state legislatures introducing some form of police reform legislation. Overall, state legislatures passed three times as many police reform bills in 2014 as they did in the previous year, 12 times as many in 2015 and five times as many in 2016.
These findings indicate that protests, and particularly media coverage of protests, can put pressure on political decision-makers to act on the protester’s demands. There are several indicators that the current protests may be even more effective in influencing policy.
The current protests may be even more effective.
First, Michael T. Heaney’s work shows that the media focused on protests in June 2020 60% more than at any other point in the last 20 years. There was about four times as much attention on protests last month than at any point during the history of the Black Lives Matter movement. This matters because it signals to legislators the salience of police reform to constituents across the country, which can lead to greater policy responsiveness from elected officials.
Because of the particularly high stakes of participation in these protests amidst the backdrop of a global pandemic, they may bring about greater policy responsiveness than previous protests against police brutality.
Second, Americans are becoming substantially more supportive of police reform policies and BLM more generally. Recent polling finds that a majority of Americans now support BLM and, for the first time ever, a plurality of White Americans support the movement. Roughly 55% of Americans support major changes to law enforcement or to redesign the system completely. Importantly, in an era of intense political polarization, there is common ground across the political spectrum on several police reform policies.
Third, as LaGina Gause argues, the costs of participating in these protests are higher due to the COVID-19 crisis, and the grievances expressed over rampant police brutality are compounded by concerns over burgeoning unemployment and a worsening economy. Gause argues that elected officials may be more responsive to the interests of group who have to overcome considerable barriers to express their interests. In sum, because of the particularly high stakes of participation in these protests amidst the backdrop of a global pandemic, they may bring about greater policy responsiveness than previous protests against police brutality.
Of course, it’s important to note that many police reform policies passed in recent years are merely symbolic. Indeed, many of the bills in our database involved token gestures such as increasing community service of officers. Even the substantive reforms, such as body camera policies and building public databases, are often not congruent with the institutional transformation advocated for by the Movement for Black Lives. Nevertheless, participation in the current protests appears to be an effective method of shaping public opinion and bringing about policy changes that better hold police departments and police officers accountable for their use of force.
Davin Phoenix and Maneesh Arora are guest contributors for the RAISE the Vote Campaign. The views expressed in the posts and articles featured in the RAISE the Vote campaign are those of the authors and contributors alone and do not represent the views of APSA.
Davin Phoenix is an associate professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine, researching how race interacts with various spheres of U.S. politics to shape the attitudes, emotions and behavior of both everyday people and elites. His research explores how race influences the emergence of anger, pride and hope in response to politics, how protests and media narratives on policing have influenced state legislative activity post-Ferguson, and how religious views shape the policy preferences and political behavior of people of color. His book The Anger Gap: How Race Shapes Emotions in Politics is the winner of the 2020 Ralph J. Bunche Award by the American Political Science Association.
Maneesh Arora is an Assistant Professor of political science at Wellesley College and an affiliate of the Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy at Brown University. His research focuses on race and ethnicity politics, public opinion, and political behavior. His articles have been published or are forthcoming in Political Research Quarterly, Politics Groups and Identities, and Journal of Education and Social Policy.