'Nonnegotiable': Advocates push for federal police reform after death of Tyre Nichols

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

President Biden was expected to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus on Thursday to discuss police reform following the death of Tyre Nichols, the 29-year-old Black man who was beaten by Memphis police during a traffic stop on Jan. 7.

The caucus requested the meeting “to push for negotiations on much needed national reforms to our justice system — specifically, the actions and conduct of our law enforcement,” the group said in a statement, adding that the beating of Nichols “was murder and is a grim reminder that we still have a long way to go in solving systemic police violence in America.”

At Nichols’s funeral in Memphis on Wednesday, several civil rights advocates and leaders called for Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a bill co-written by Vice President Kamala Harris while she was a California senator.

“It is nonnegotiable,” Harris, who spoke at the funeral, said on Wednesday. “We demand that Congress pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, and we should not delay, and we will not be denied.”

Harris said Biden will sign the legislation if it makes it to his desk, but the bill has failed to gain traction since 2021.

“I think we should do it right now. We should have done it before,” Biden told reporters Monday.

Vice President Kamala Harris at the microphone, with the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. J. Lawrence Turner standing behind her looking solemn.
Vice President Kamala Harris addresses the funeral service for Tyre Nichols at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church in Memphis on Wednesday. From left, the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. J. Lawrence Turner. (Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean/Pool via AP)

The 2021 George Floyd Justice in Policing Act seeks to end excessive force, qualified immunity and racial bias in policing and to combat police misconduct. While the bill passed the House of Representatives twice in the previous Congress, it failed in the Senate.

Almost three years after Floyd's murder at the hands of police in Minneapolis, there is a renewed push for Congress to reach an agreement on federal legislation for police reform.

Referring to Nichols's death, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, told Yahoo News, “This unfortunately reignites the fervor and the necessity and the urgency.” Jackson Lee is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the ranking member of the Judiciary Subcommittee for Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations.

“With 18,000 police communities, there has to be a federal law that addresses the training and the relationship between police. We have to restart, and we have to start all over again,” she said.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee talks with the Rev. Al Sharpton.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, talks with Sharpton in the White House before President Biden signs an executive order on May 25, 2022, the second anniversary of the death of George Floyd. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Advocates for the bill include RowVaughn Wells, Nichols’s mother. "We need to get that bill passed, because if we don't, that blood — the next child that dies, that blood is gonna be on their hands," Wells said on Wednesday.

As the bill sits in limbo, Rashawn Ray, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says the George Floyd Act is a reminder of “stalled progress.”

“We know that over the past decade — it really started with Trayvon Martin — people have been pushing for changes with our criminal justice system, particularly as it relates to policing,” Ray told Yahoo News.

He said it's disappointing that the Floyd bill has failed to pass, because Republicans and Democrats agree on 80% of the details in the legislation.

The majority in both parties agree on using body-worn cameras, creating a database of police officers, banning chokeholds, eliminating no-knock warrants and providing mental health and deescalation training, according to Ray.

A frame grab taken from a bodycam video shows Tyre Nichols, standing, looking down, and an open car door behind him. The shot is marked, among other things, 2023-01-07 20:25:57 Axon Body.
A frame grab from a bodycam video shows Nichols, left, and Memphis police on Jan. 7. (City of Memphis handout/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

But there's one piece of the legislation that Republicans and Democrats disagree on — qualified immunity, which shields police officers from liability.

“I oppose civil lawsuits against individual officers,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on Twitter. “However, holding police departments accountable makes sense, and they should face liability for the misconduct of their officers.”

Some Democrats are skeptical that the bill will pass over the next two years, given the current makeup of Congress. "If you're asking me that this House, where we are no longer in the majority, will do the right thing, I have my doubts," Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., told CBS News. "That's why elections are very important. We still can't give up hope. We've got to continue to fight."

But some civil rights advocates believe that qualified immunity stands in the way of meaningful police reform.

“If you don't have qualified immunity, your wife will be telling you before you leave home, 'Behave yourself,'" the Rev. Al Sharpton said Wednesday. "You will have to think twice before you beat Tyre Nichols. You think twice before you shoot at someone unarmed. You think twice before you chokehold Eric Garner. You think twice before you put your knee on George Floyd's neck.”

Rev. Al Sharpton, speaking at the microphone, extends his right hand to point, with a pained expression on his face.
Sharpton delivers the eulogy at Nichols's funeral. (Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean/Pool via AP)

Kalifni Ture, a former police officer and an expert on the use of force, said he believes that Republicans won’t sign a bill that takes qualified immunity off the table.

“They believe that the precarity of policing is so great that we have to make allowances for bad judgment calls, or errant practices and even unethical practices,” Ture told Yahoo News.

Yet some locales, like Colorado, Connecticut, New Mexico and New York City, have either limited or ended qualified immunity.

“I understand that the bill and negotiations around the bill really became deadlocked around this issue of qualified immunity,” James Burch, the president of the National Policing Institute, told Yahoo News. “I can understand that, because it's highly politically charged. But that doesn't mean that there can't be a conversation about better ways to do it.”

In the days since Nichols's death, some advocates have found renewed hope and believe that more conversations can lead to federal legislation.

“It's a strong bill. But to be a good legislator, you've got to be open to many suggestions. And that's what we'll be doing,” Jackson Lee said.

But critics say a new law won’t change the culture of policing. As a former police officer, Ture says he is not sure whether federal legislation will work. “You can implement all the training in the world, but police officers in formal culture often take precedence on the street,” he said.

Wearing sweatshirts marked Police, officers talk to each other in this still from video time-stamped 20:42:59.
Officers stand near Nichols on Jan. 7 in this image from video released by the Memphis Police Department. (Memphis Police Department/Handout via Reuters)

“There is only so much that the federal government can reasonably do,” Burch said. “Crime, justice, policing, public safety are really state and local matters, and should be addressed primarily at the state level.”

But Jackson Lee said she is reminded of the words of Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “While the law may not change the hearts of men, it does change the habits of men.”

“And I can assure you the law is effective,” Jackson Lee said. “There will be many persons who think before they act, but more importantly, there'll be many persons who won't be in the police, because their deeds or their actions will follow them and they won't be able to go from one police department to the next. Laws do make a difference.”