President Joe Biden called for law enforcement to be held to higher standards in his State of the Union address Tuesday — exactly a month after Memphis police fatally beat Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man.
“All of us in this chamber, we need to rise to this moment,” Biden said. “We can’t turn away. Let’s do what we know in our hearts, what we need to do. Let’s come together and finish the job on police reform.”
Biden in his speech didn’t directly call for passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, but he noted that he previously signed an executive order “banning chokeholds, restricting no-knock warrants, and other key elements of the George Floyd Act” for federal officers.
Both the 2020 and 2021 versions of the bill named for Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police in 2020, would have also prohibited racial profiling by law enforcement. The bill twice passed in the House but stalled in the Senate.
“I know most cops and their families are good, decent, honorable people, the vast majority,” Biden said, to applause from the chamber. “And they risk their lives every time they put that shield on. But what happened to Tyre in Memphis happens too often.”
Nichols’ death renewed calls for reform in policing, particularly among Democrats and activists. But any legislative changes on the federal level face a Republican majority in the House.
Biden on Tuesday called for resources for law enforcement training; accountability for law enforcement; and additional investment in communities, including housing, mental health and addiction treatment.
Police officers are asked to perform too many roles in their communities, he said — “to be counselors, social workers, psychologists, responding to drug overdoses, mental health crises.”
The president’s remarks on the issue included notably different rhetoric than last year’s address to Congress, in which he explicitly and repeatedly called to “fund the police.” That call came in response to Republican criticism that Democrats wanted to defund police, though few Democrats on the Hill held that position.
Progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), speaking on MSNBC after Tuesday’s speech, praised this change toward a focus on reform.
“It’s a long way from just a year ago, when it was really just about how much more money can we pile into these local departments in order to fix this issue,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
Biden also recalled a conversation he had with Nichols’ mother, in which she expressed hope that “something good will come from this.” The president acknowledged both the grief of losing a child and the added tragedy of a death caused by law enforcement officers.
Nichols’ parents, who were called out to applause in the address, have called for passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.
Changes in the bill are possible, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) said Tuesday on MSNBC.
“The four corners of this bill may be expanded, may be modified. Names may be added to it. But the key element is an infrastructure of guidance for police,” Jackson Lee said. Jackson Lee plans to re-introduce the policing bill named for Floyd, with a “duty to intervene” provision named for Nichols added, attorney Ben Crump said last week. Crump is representing Nichols’ family.
Biden — who has said he was “outraged” watching the surveillance videoof Nichols’ beating — met with Congressional Black Caucus members last week to seemingly restore talks about policing, but concrete plans out of that meeting weren’t immediately clear.
Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), speaking on “ABC News Live,” remained hopeful about prospects for reform Tuesday. Horsford, chair of the CBC, also said he spoke with Republican members about reform Tuesday.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who led the talks on police reform before they largely fell apart in 2021, said Sunday he’s “sobered” at the possibility of comprehensive reform but optimistic that some compromise is still possible.
Vice President Kamala Harris, members of Nichols’ family, civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton and Crump all called for the passage of the act named for Floyd last week at Nichols’ funeral.
“We need to get that bill passed, because if we don’t, that blood, that next child that dies — that blood is going to be on their hands,” Nichols’ mother, RowVaughn Wells, said at the time.
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