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Biden signs police reform executive order on 2nd anniversary of George Floyd's death


Today is the second anniversary of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. President Biden marked the date by signing an executive order meant to change how police use force.

NPR's Martin Kaste covers law enforcement and joins us now. Hi, Martin.


PFEIFFER: How significant is the White House saying this order is?

KASTE: Well, President Biden pointed to the presence at this signing of family members of George Floyd and also Breonna Taylor. That was the woman who was shot to death during a fast entry police raid of her apartment in Louisville back in 2020. And for him, the outcry over those deaths is what led to this executive order.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It's 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 and to channel that private pain and public outrage into a rare mark of progress for years to come.

KASTE: But at the same time, the president lamented that Congress has failed to pass more substantial police reform law, something he says he'd still like to see.

PFEIFFER: What does this executive order actually change in American policing?

KASTE: Well, the most direct effect here is on federal law enforcement; that's Border Patrol, FBI, that sort of agency. The officers in those agencies will now be told to use force, quote, "only when no reasonably effective, safe and feasible alternative appears to exist." They'll also be told that when it comes to deadly force, that's authorized only when necessary.

The executive order gets specific about certain kinds of force. It limits the use of neck restraints, for instance. Those became notorious after a neck hold was blamed for the death of Eric Garner in 2014. And no-knock raids also will be more limited again for federal officers. That was after the outcry over the police raid that killed Breonna Taylor.

PFEIFFER: Martin, you're saying this applies to federal officers, but didn't the cases that launched the protest movement involve local police?

KASTE: Yeah, but the president can't order changes to local police. So what this does is it tries to encourage local police departments to follow the federal example. One way they might do that would be to make standards, these federal standards, a condition of some federal grants. Another thing it might do is - another thing it will do is set up a new federal database to keep track of misconduct by police officers, though, again, the only ones required to use that database would be the federal law enforcement agencies. It'll be voluntary for local police departments.

And we have seen with other federal data-collecting initiatives that local police can be slow to cooperate with those data-collection efforts. We've seen that, for instance, with a new effort to collect data about police use of force. But, you know, this order sticks with that encouragement tact rather than forcing change. And police organizations do prefer that. The national executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, Jim Pasco, talked about this new executive order with our colleague Tamara Keith yesterday.

JIM PASCO: We've found common ground where it didn't seem likely that any could be found. And that said, you know, I don't think either side is 100% happy with it, you know, us or the civil rights community. But I think it's a good foundation, a good framework for improving the relationship between police and the communities they serve.

PFEIFFER: He just mentioned the civil rights community, the reformers, basically. Are they on board with this?

KASTE: Well, they certainly support these changes, but I do think there is some sense of disappointment. I talked to Walter Katz about this. He's a former public defender who's had a lot of experience working on police reform at the city level.

WALTER KATZ: I think this is a relatively small step. There was great promise in 2020 and 2021, at least in the beginning. And I think since then, some of the energy dissipated. So I think the Biden administration has taken a step forward within the power that it has.

KASTE: But Katz does add that he sees potential in the fact that at least we'll have some clear national standards now for higher standards of use of force, which may smooth the path for police departments that want to raise the bar for use of force and for legislators who want to put those things into state law. That's something that's already been happening in several states the last couple of years. And the hope here is that federal norms may accelerate that process on a state level.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's Martin Kaste. Thank you.

KASTE: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIGUR ROS SONG, "FLJOTAVIK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.