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Biden’s bully pulpit is Democrats’ best policing reform tactic as Congress grapples with Tyre Nichols’ death

US President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the US economy at Steamfitters Local 602 on January 26, 2023 in Springfield, Virginia.US President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the US economy at Steamfitters Local 602 on January 26, 2023 in Springfield, Virginia.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

  • Tyre Nichols’ death has reignited talk about bolstering police accountability. 
  • Police reforms flamed out in the last Congress after Senate lawmakers failed to reach consensus.
  • House Democrats hope that Biden making it a top priority helps break the current logjam.

Lawmakers horrified by the brutal killing of Tyre Nichols vow to keep working towards a legislative solution in the 118th Congress, but are counting on President Joe Biden to turn up the heat on comprehensive policing reform. 

The lethal beating Nichols received from five police officers in Memphis, Tennessee earlier this month has sparked plenty of outrage on Capitol Hill. It has not, however, broken the political stalemate that led to a House-passed police accountability deal languishing in the other chamber, while bipartisan talks on a Senate alternative sputtered out after failing to attract enough support to overcome the 60-vote filibuster threshold. 

Absent a sudden breakthrough on the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021 — a bipartisan bill named for the 46-year-old Black man murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in May 2020 — Congressional Black Caucus chair Steven Horsford said hashing out a strategy with Biden for prioritizing policing reform is the best way to go.

“There are times when we come together, and that generally involves the president and all of us working to put partisanship aside,” Horsford told Insider at the US Capitol, adding that the CBC’s emergency meeting with Biden would focus on reaffirming his pro-policing reform stance in the upcoming State of the Union address. 

“We will be meeting on Thursday to talk about the details of what we would like that message to include,” Horsford said. 

Biden said he was “outraged and deeply pained” when the bodycam footage of the Nichols encounter was released. 

“We must do everything in our power to ensure our criminal justice system lives up to the promise of fair and impartial justice, equal treatment, and dignity for all,” Biden said in an official statement. On Monday he said making the George Floyd Act the law of the land is long overdue. 

“I think we should do it right now. We should have done it before,” Biden told reporters at the White House. Vice President Kamala Harris flew to Memphis on Wednesday to attend Nichols funeral, where she called on Congress to pass the George Floyd Act

Kamala Harris, Tyre Nichols funeralVice President Kamala Harris speaks during the funeral service for Tyre Nichols at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church in Memphis, Tennessee.

Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean via AP, Pool

Biden and Harris both spoke with Nichols’ mother and stepfather to offer support and Biden pledged to continue pushing Congress pass the bill, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday.

Last year, Biden issued an executive order designed to bolster the accountability and transparency of law enforcement actions. 

Asked whether he’s considering additional executive action, White House Press Secretary Jean-Pierre noted that Biden’s executive order resulted in “immediate change” at the federal level, mandating standards limiting the use of force, banning chokeholds, requiring body-worn cameras and restricting “no-knock” warrants. 

Now he wants to see Congress act in a bipartisan way to “make transformational change,” she said.

“We’re going to talk to the CBC members, and talk through what their ideas are and what they’re thinking,” she said. “But again, we think that legislation, federal legislation, is the way to move forward here.”

‘Our nation is reeling’

Having moved the ball forward last term with the House-passed bill and Biden’s executive orders, Horsford said lawmakers need to build on that momentum right now. 

“It shouldn’t be that hard for us to come together, to work together, and to find solutions to the issue of the culture of policing,” Horsford said off the House floor, adding that “all of us should agree that bad policing has no place in American communities and America’s cities.”

House Democratic Caucus chair Pete Aguilar was much less optimistic about policing reform opponents suddenly rallying around the Floyd Act or any other substantive proposals. 

“Senate Republicans wouldn’t go along with that level of accountability. And it’s too bad,” Aguilar said of the wasted opportunities in the 117th Congress during a Tuesday press conference at the US Capitol. 

Aguilar did not address questions about when or if the George Floyd Act would be reintroduced this session, stating only that he expects Horsford and former CBC chair Rep. Joyce Beatty of Ohio to continue spearheading those efforts. 

Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who in 2021 tried cobbling together a policing reform package with Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey until those negotiations fell apart, said Americans are rightly “reeling” from news of another senseless killing.

—Tim Scott (@SenatorTimScott) January 31, 2023

“I take the issue of policing in America seriously,” Scott, who is a likely 2024 presidential contender, said on the Senate floor. 

Scott urged his colleagues to quit pointing fingers and finally do whatever it takes to ward off future tragedies, arguing that fixes like the enhanced deescalation techniques and curbs against excessive force that he’s been pushing “could have made a difference in Memphis.” 

Horsford couldn’t agree more about seizing the moment. 

“The thing is, it may have been Tyre Nichols yesterday. But who will it be next?” he said Tuesday night.  

Flanked by the parents of Tyre Nichols and faith and community leaders, civil rights attorney Ben Crump speaks next to a photo of Nichols during a press conference on January 27, 2023 in Memphis, Tennessee.Flanked by the parents of Tyre Nichols and faith and community leaders, civil rights attorney Ben Crump speaks next to a photo of Nichols during a press conference on January 27, 2023 in Memphis, Tennessee.

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