Legislators and civil rights advocates in the United States are calling on President Joe Biden’s administration to do more to advance police reform after the violent arrest of a Black motorist in Memphis this month renewed calls to end police brutality in the country.
Speaking at Wednesday’s funeral for Tyre Nichols, who died after police officers beat him on January 7, Vice President Kamala Harris said Washington would settle for nothing less than ambitious federal legislation to end police violence.
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“This violent act was not in pursuit of public safety,” Harris said in reference to the beating, as she addressed mourners from the pulpit of Memphis’s Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church.
“Was he not also entitled to the right to be safe?” she asked of the 29-year-old father and FedEx worker. “Tyre Nichols should have been safe.”
The vice president concluded her remarks by urging Congress to pass federal police reform legislation. “We should not delay and we will not be denied. It is non-negotiable.”
But progress on the reforms has been difficult. Bipartisan efforts to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act stalled in Congress more than a year ago over Republican opposition to elements of the legislation.
The bill was named after a man whose 2020 death at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, set off protests around the world that demanded an end to police violence and anti-Black racism.
In May, Biden signed an executive order also named for Floyd that largely focused on federal agencies, requiring them to review and revise policies on the use of force. It mandated the creation of a national police misconduct database and restricted the use of no-knock warrants and chokeholds.
But after this month’s brutal beating of Nichols, which was captured on police body cameras, advocates say much more needs to be done.
On Thursday, Biden and Harris will meet with members of the Congressional Black Caucus to explore whether the federal legislation can get back on track. “I am working to make sure that we have a clear plan,” said Democratic Congressman Steven Horsford, who chairs the caucus.
Representative Jamaal Bowman, another Democrat, urged Biden to take more decisive action, saying the president was “missing the opportunity to be a historic president when it comes to the social issues that continue to plague our country”.
Bowman described Biden as “a champion of the status quo in many ways”, and he said Biden needs to be “a champion of a new vision for America”.
My heart goes out to Tyre Nichols' family as we mourn his loss.
I remain committed to finding legislative solutions to ensure that police officers who use excessive force are held accountable through the criminal legal system.
— Rep. Steven Horsford (@RepHorsford) January 28, 2023
Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, the largest US police union, said he was in touch with the White House on Friday when video of Nichols’s beating was released to the public, to see whether the situation could be a catalyst to “get things moving again”.
The union had participated in previous attempts to reach a bipartisan deal on police reforms, and Pasco said, “We welcome any constructive effort to help us do our jobs better.” The union’s president, Patrick Yoes, earlier condemned Nichols’s killing and said, “Our entire country needs to see justice done — swiftly and surely.”
However, Pasco said Republicans recently regained control of the House of Representatives, making legislative progress harder. “You’ve got to look at the political realities here,” he explained.
Back in Memphis, the police department has sacked five of the officers involved in Nichols’s death, and prosecutors charged them last week with second-degree murder, assault, kidnapping, official misconduct and oppression.
Two other officers implicated in the incident have been relieved of duty — effectively suspended — and are under investigation. Two paramedics and their on-scene supervisor were dismissed on Monday from the city’s fire department, while two Shelby County sheriff’s deputies have also been suspended.
“We cannot continue to let these people brutalise our kids,” Rodney Wells, Nichols’s stepfather, said during the funeral.
Ben Crump, a civil rights lawyer representing the family, said he expected equally swift action in other incidents of police violence involving white officers. The five former Memphis police officers charged in Nichols’s death are Black.
“No more can they ever tell us when we have evidence on video of them brutalising us, that it’s going to take six years, that it’s going to take a month, that it’s going to take three years,” Crump told the mourners.
“Every time you kill one of us on video, we’re going to say the legacy of Tyre Nichols is that we have equal justice swiftly. Swiftly! Swiftly!” he said.
We came together as a community in Memphis, TN. to let the country know we say no more! Police must face swift accountability for killing Black men — we’re humbled to support the Nichols family during their time of tragedy and demand equal justice for Tyre Nichols! pic.twitter.com/7pRbjM3q2D
— Ben Crump (@AttorneyCrump) February 2, 2023