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Tyre Nichols' killing revives calls for Congress to address police reform

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., seen here on Sept. 7, 2022, spoke about police reform on the Senate floor Monday night, noting that he has given 10 speeches on policing in eight years.
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Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., seen here on Sept. 7, 2022, spoke about police reform on the Senate floor Monday night, noting that he has given 10 speeches on policing in eight years.

Updated January 31, 2023 at 10:14 AM ET

The release of video footage of Memphis, Tenn., police brutally beating Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black father and FedEx employee, has revived calls for Congress to once again consider police reform. But in an era of divided government, the likelihood of any legislation making it to President Biden's desk remains slim.

Nichols died in a hospital three days after being pulled over for what police said was reckless driving. Five officers who beat Nichols have been indicted and jailed on charges including second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression. Other officers have also been relieved of duty pending an investigation.

Plans are underway for Congressional Black Caucus Chair Steven Horsford to meet with Biden about police reform. A date for the meeting has not yet been set.

The Nevada Democrat told NPR that he wants to know "what more we can be doing from an executive action standpoint" and added that he thinks Biden can be a key player in negotiations.

"I believe the president has the ability to bring us together in a very unique way," Horsford said, noting Biden's role in passing gun safety legislation and the bipartisan infrastructure legislation. "We expect the president to be involved in helping us reach consensus in a bipartisan way on comprehensive police accountability and justice reform."

Horsford said he wants Biden to address the issue in the upcoming State of the Union in order "to center this issue and the pain that families are experiencing, not the least of which is the Nichols family, but people who experience this pain virtually every single day somewhere in America."

Horsford has invited the Nichols family to attend the address.

"When a mother has to be concerned with her child going to a park, when a family member has to be concerned about someone busting down someone's door in the middle of the night, when a young man gets pulled over for what may or may not even be a traffic stop, and it ends in death because of bad policing — all of us should be concerned because any of us could be next."

Horsford added: "Congress has a role to play, and anyone who says they don't is abdicating their responsibility to keep our community safe. You cannot stand up in one minute and say you're for safety and do nothing to keep our community safe from bad policing."

But passing legislation in both chambers is an uphill battle.

Negotiations on police reform broke down in 2021 after months of bipartisan deliberations between then-Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., and Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Tim Scott, R-S.C.

Despite previous impasses on the issue, Horsford said he remains "hopeful" that progress can be made on a legislative level.

"We are working to come up with opportunities to negotiate on the principles of justice and police reform that are meaningful," he said, noting he has reached out to Scott, one of the central players in previous negotiations. "We are looking for ways to tackle the pattern and practices of cities like Memphis that have higher rates of use of force against Black residents."

"It is a false choice that people say we cannot both support law enforcement and hold them accountable to serve the communities that they are sworn to do so in a manner that keeps people safe," he said.

Calls to bring back the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act

Attorney Ben Crump, who represents Nichols' family, has also called on Congress to renew negotiations.

"Shame on us if we don't use [Nichols'] tragic death to finally get the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act passed," Crump said on CNN's State of the Union.

That legislation, which passed in the House in March 2021 but faced steep Republican opposition in the Senate, sought to ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants in certain cases, mandate data collection on police encounters and alter qualified immunity for law enforcement.

Sen. Dick Durbin, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, told ABC's This Week that he wants Booker and Scott to "revive that effort."

"It had many elements in it that are important: banning chokeholds, dealing with no-warrant searches, dealing with accreditation of police departments. It's necessary that we do all these things, but not sufficient," said the Illinois Democrat.

In a Senate floor speech Monday night, Scott slammed Durbin's remarks.

"Sen. Durbin asked Sen. Booker and I to come back to the table and start talking about policing in America," he said. "I never left the table."

Scott, the lone Black Republican in the Senate, criticized Democrats for previously blocking consideration of his policing reform measure in 2020.

"Imagine my disappointment," Scott said, "when the duty to intervene, de-escalation training, more resources, more reporting, so that we all have eyes around the country, was filibustered in this chamber."

"We should have simple legislation that we can agree on," he added. "But too often too many are too concerned with who gets the credit. I know that when a conservative Republican starts talking about policing in America, some people seem to just turn the channel. That's wrong."

But even if a new version of police reform legislation were to be approved by the Senate, it would then have to pass the Republican-controlled House.

"I don't know that there's any law that can stop that evil that we saw," said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, on NBC's Meet the Press.

"There's things we can do. I think there's all kinds of grant dollars that could go out. There's reform that can happen there," he said. "But it's just a difference in, I think, philosophy. The Democrats always think that it's a new law that's going to fix something that terrible."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.
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