Illustration of two police officers in a grid

Wilson Center database tracks police reform legislation

Few events have galvanized calls for policing reform more than the 2020 murder of George Floyd, who died handcuffed and pinned to the ground under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Floyd’s death sparked outrage, protests, and calls for legislation around the country to help reduce citizen deaths at the hands of law enforcement. Yet they have risen since then: During 2022, 1,243 people were killed by police in the United States, according to, up 8% from 1,149 in 2020.

To ascertain whether calls for policing reform resulted in policy change, the Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke Law created a database to track legislation related to law enforcement policies and practices. It includes more than 3,800 federal, state, and local bills introduced from 2018 to 2022 across a range of topics. 

Of the total, only 602 bills — or 16% of those introduced — had been enacted as of August 2023. An additional 3,089 bills have failed, with 118 pending and two vetoed. And while much more legislation to regulate police activity was introduced in 2020 and 2021 following Floyd’s death, the percentage of laws that passed didn’t increase.

It wasn’t just the number of bills proposed and passed, but also the types that interested Wilson Center faculty director and L. Neil Williams, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Law Brandon L. Garrett. Some laws were proposed to make police more accountable for racial discrimination and abuses of use of force, but others would bolster police powers and keep information about police misconduct from being made public.

“We were interested in what kind of legislation was going to result and we saw over time that, like lots of topics, the reactions to calls for police reform were polarized and partisan,” Garrett said.

On police use of force, 454 bills were introduced, including seven at the federal level, but only 71 were enacted. Nationally, there are no clear standards for how and when police should use force. One effort, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021, passed the U.S. House of Representatives but stalled in the Senate over the issue of qualified immunity for officers.

“The standards that the Supreme Court has come up with have made it almost impossible to hold police accountable for egregious constitutional violations. The only way to fix that problem is to change things at the federal level because the most important civil rights suits are brought in federal court,” said Garrett.

Angela Weis Gammell ’10, the Wilson Center’s policy director, said some cities have set up civilian advisory and review boards to increase community oversight of police, but few of those have produced a transformative change.

“What is interesting and exciting about these past few years is that conversations around regulating police have gone in a number of different directions — from budgeting to facial recognition to new technologies to policing accountability data. It’s a much broader policy space, and legislation being introduced and passed reflects it,” said Garrett.

Elana Fogel, assistant clinical professor and director of the Criminal Defense Clinic, added that many reform activists believe a change in law enforcement culture is also needed.

The database does not include laws that revise criminal procedures or substantive criminal offenses. Nor does it include executive orders, such as the 2022 executive order issued by President Joe Biden, “Advancing Effective, Accountable Policing and Criminal Justice Practices to Enhance Public Trust and Public Safety.”

A team of 11 students worked to create the database with Sean Chen, the assistant director for cataloging and metadata services in the J. Michael Goodson Law Library. It will be continuously updated to serve as a repository for those conducting research.

“It’s an enormous amount of work to read thousands of pieces of legislation, think about how to break them into topics, code them properly, and keep checking on the status of legislation, because legislative sessions last many months and a bill that seems to be stalled could suddenly be enacted,” Garrett said.  — Susan Miller

Legislation that has been enacted in states includes:

  • 8 statutes creating police study commissions
  • 10 statutes regarding qualified immunity
  • 11 concerning police in schools
  • 12 regarding racial profiling
  • 16 having to do with biometric data
  • 22 regarding body cameras
  • 47 on oversight of police agencies
  • 54 regarding certification of police officers
  • 75 concerning budgets
  • 80 regarding training
  • 98 on police data collection

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Fall 2023
Volume 42 No. 2