Past defeats on police reform bedevil newly divided Congress
Weeks before President Joe Biden made his first address to Congress in 2021, a graphic video was released of a Black man being killed at the hands of police.
The country watched the now hauntingly familiar scene play out across its screens. Family members tearfully pleaded for change. Lawmakers in Washington pledged to pass meaningful reform.
Biden pumped momentum into talks during the nationally televised address telling Congress to “get it done” by the next month, the anniversary of a Minneapolis police officer’s killing of another Black man, George Floyd.
“We’ve all seen the knee of injustice on the neck of Black Americans,” the Democratic president said. “Now is our opportunity to make some real progress.”
And then, as before, negotiations fell apart along partisan lines, pushing the issue of police brutality to the back of the line of legislative priorities, underscoring again how Congress often fails to deliver solutions even when there is broad agreement on the problem.
Nearly two years later, as Biden begins his third year in office, there is another deadly sequel. A video released last week showed the violent Jan. 7 encounter between Tyre Nichols and the Memphis, Tennessee, police officers who savagely beat the 29-year-old Black FedEx worker for three minutes while screaming profanities at him.
Nichols was hospitalized and died days later. Five police officers, who also are Black, have been fired and charged with second-degree murder and other offenses in his beating and death. On Monday, two more Memphis police officers were disciplined and three emergency medical technicians were fired in connection with the case.
Nichols’ parents are set to attend Biden’s State of the Union address next week, hoping to increase pressure on the president and Washington.
And the same lawmakers who were close to a deal the last time are now looking to see if any remnants of a compromise have the chance of passing a newly divided Congress.
“I don’t speak on this floor very often,” Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., said on the Senate floor Monday. “But this is my 10th speech on policing in America in eight years.”
Scott went on to call out Democrats for asking him to “come back to the table” following the release of the Nichols video over the weekend despite blocking his legislation from passing two years ago.
“I never left the table,” the only Black Republican senator said in an emotional speech.
Scott emerged as one of the lead negotiators in the Senate after the brutal police killing of Floyd in 2020. He and Democratic Sen. Cory Booker — two of the three Black men serving in the chamber — embarked on a nine-month, painstaking negotiation.
The talks focused on writing compromise legislation curbing law enforcement agencies’ use of force and making them more accountable for abuses. But negotiations stalled over Democrats’ demands to make individual police officers accused of abuses liable for civil penalties.
It’s currently difficult to pursue such actions, called “qualified immunity,” in all but the most egregious cases. Republicans and law enforcement groups like the Fraternal Order of Police have resisted easing those limitations.
Still, the group walked away in agreement on banning chokeholds, curbing the transfer of military equipment to police and increasing funds for mental health programs, which address problems that often lead to encounters with law enforcement officers.
Those agreements are now the foundation for any negotiations in the wake of Nichols’ death. “It’s such a tragedy that they got so damn close,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said of the past negotiations. “The good news is there are plenty of pieces that were there that they can pick back up.”
The conversations between Scott and Booker began over the weekend and are expected to continue through this week. In the House, Rep. Steve Horsford, D-Nev., the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, reached out to set up a meeting with Scott. The group of Black lawmakers is expected to go to the White House on Thursday to meet with Biden.
“Despite the dysfunction in Washington, D.C., this is something that all of us can agree that regardless of party, of the region of the country, bad policing shouldn’t exist anywhere in America,” Horsford said.
On Monday, several Democrats indicated that they are open to negotiations on even the most hard-fought police reform proposals, even if they fall short of the proposal the party passed in the House after Floyd’s death.
But whether Republicans will agree remains unclear. Republicans now control the House and are moving forward with legislation that would call out any effort to “defund the police.” And Democrats have a very slim majority in the 100-seat Senate.
“I don’t know if there are 60 votes for anything in the Senate,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Monday. “I have been pretty open-minded about trying to do reasonable police reform. It made sense to me then, and it does now, but we’ll see where the space is.”
GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who helped pass a modest police reform bill last year, also was dismissive of the idea an accord could be reached, saying he thinks any agreement “is probably less likely to happen now with divided government.”
Vice President Kamala Harris attended Nichols’ funeral in Memphis on Wednesday and demanded that Congress pass the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act, legislation she co-authored during her time in the Senate.
“Joe Biden will sign it,” Harris said. “And we should not delay, and we will not be denied. It is non-negotiable.”
Nichols’ loved ones echoed that sentiment.
“We need to take some action because there should be no other child that should suffer the way my son — and all the other parents here have lost their children — we need to get that bill passed,” RowVaughn Wells said Wednesday as they buried her son. “Because if we don’t, that blood — the next child that dies — that blood is going to be on their hands.”