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Tyre Nichols killing reignites police reform efforts in D.C. and Twin Cities

Proposed reform, such as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, was approved by the previous House in 2021 but would need approval in the new Congress, which is GOP-controlled.

People attending a vigil on Monday at the intersection of Castlegate Lane and Bear Creek Cove, where Tyre Nichols was beaten to death by Memphis Police officers.
People attending a vigil on Monday at the intersection of Castlegate Lane and Bear Creek Cove, where Tyre Nichols was beaten to death by Memphis Police officers.
REUTERS/Alyssa Pointer

The horrific police beating that led to Tyre Nichols’ death has provoked calls for Congress to respond, and to an effort, to revive the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, but reforms are unlikely.

The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, drafted in response to the deaths of Black Americans like George Floyd at the hands of police, was approved by the House in 2021, but foundered in the Senate. Now, the barriers to approval are higher in the House, which has flipped to Republican control. And there are still hurdles in the Senate where legislation requires 60 votes for approval and Democrats have a slim, 51-vote majority. Because it was a previous House body, the bill would once again need approval in the lower chamber if it is to become law. Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis Police sparked international outrage and days if upheaval is cities throughout the nation.

Still, advocates and activists are calling for Congress to act, as is the Nichols’ family and their attorney, Ben Crump.

“Shame on us if we don’t use his tragic death to finally get the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act passed,” said Crump, who also leads the Floyd family legal team, on CNN this weekend. “We told President Biden that when he talked to us.”

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Biden told reporters on Monday that he’d meet with the Congressional Black Caucus and that Congress should pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.

Nevertheless, Steven Smith, a political science professor at St Louis’ Washington University, said “the way forward has become more difficult, not less difficult, because of Republican control of the House.”

“Police reform has not been given a high priority by House Republicans,” Smith said.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who in 2021 tried to negotiate a compromise on the George Floyd bill that would pass the Senate, said this week he’s in talks again.

“Senator Booker has spent the past several days engaged in conversations with colleagues on both sides of the aisle and is considering all legislative options to raise the levels of transparency, accountability, and professionalism in American policing,” said Booker spokeswoman Maya Krishna-Rogers.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also said this week “I want to rekindle this conversation.”

But Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who worked with Booker to forge a bipartisan compromise, scuttled the deal when he suggested Democrats wanted to “defund the police” by tying federal grant money to reforms.

“When ‘defunding the police’ became fighting words for Republicans, (Scott) changed his mind,” Smith said.

Scott is now considered a GOP contender for the White House and is courting conservative Republican primary voters.

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The George Floyd bill would also, among other things, give the Justice Department authority to investigate whether there has been a “pattern and practice” of bias or misconduct by a police department, establish a federal registry of police misconduct complaints and disciplinary actions, restrict the transfer of military equipment to police and outlaw “no knock warrants.”

But it was the legislation’s restriction of the use of qualified immunity for local and state officers, which shields them from lawsuits that result from acts committed in the line of duty that sparked the greatest pushback from police departments and police unions and associations, including the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association. These groups spent millions of dollars in lobbying against the George Floyd bill.

Even some Democrats who supported the George Floyd bill, including Rep. Angie Craig, D-2nd District, withdrew their backing for new limits on qualified immunity.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., aimed at finding a compromise on the issue of qualified immunity this week by proposing police officers be shielded from civil lawsuits from private citizens, while allowing federal law to make police departments liable for the actions of their officers.

While comprehensive reforms seem like a long-shot, some Minnesota lawmakers have joined those demanding change.

“Tyre Nichols should be alive today,” said Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., “Watching the video of his murder was terrible and crushingly painful – and far too common of an experience. We must continue working to pass comprehensive police reform legislation… we need to finally end this legacy of violence and the epidemic of Black people dying at the hands of law enforcement in this country.”

And Rep. Betty McCollum, D-4th District, said she voted twice for the George Floyd bill in 2021 and “strongly support its bold, comprehensive approach to hold police accountable, change the culture of law enforcement, and build trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”

“We cannot and must not give up on much-needed police reforms on a federal level – justice demands it,” McCollum said in an emailed statement.

Meanwhile, Smith said Congress may be able to address police abuse by “throwing money” at state and local police departments that would allow them to implement better training and hire more psychologist and social workers that could defuse hostile encounters between police and members of the community.

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“Money is always a solution,” he said.

There’s a new push for policing reforms in the state, too

With the likelihood Congress will fail to act, whether local police departments undergo change will be left to individual states.

After the release of videos this weekend that showed the brutal, deadly beating of Nichols after a traffic stop in Memphis, members of several Twin Cities activist groups rallied in front of the governor’s mansion to demand justice and show support for the 29-year-old’s family.

“Being the place where George Floyd was murdered — a man whose name was spread all over the world — we wanted to show that our families here in Minnesota stand in solidarity with the Nichols family,” said Toshira Garraway of Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence, a non-profit group seeking reform.

Garraway said lawmakers in Washington, D.C. are oblivious to the risk Black men face when they are stopped by police.

“(Lawmakers) simply may not care because it doesn’t affect them or their constituents or their family or the community they live in,” Garraway said. “If someone is not affected by something, there’s less urgency to see it changed.”

Despite the expectation of inaction by lawmakers on the federal level, local groups hope that the state Legislature – which now boasts Democratic majorities in both chambers –and DFL Gov. Tim Walz take additional steps toward reforming police departments in Minnesota.

Less than two months after Floyd’s murder in 2020, state lawmakers passed a policing package during a special session that banned chokeholds and “warrior training,” and requires officers to intervene when their peers use excessive force.

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About a year later, both chambers passed a public safety budget bill that featured reforms like more stringent requirements for no-knock warrants. That bill also expanded the use of unarmed mental health response teams, among other measures.

But Democrats, in both instances, lamented that the bills weren’t strong enough as compromises with the GOP-led Senate required them to leave reforms on the table to get the bills to Walz’s desk.

Garraway said she’s hopeful the DFL control of the Legislature and governor’s seat will now allow lawmakers to pass stronger reforms at the state level, which she said she sees as the only way to ensure officers are held accountable for their actions.

“We don’t want to have to live in fear,” she said.