Will the Vicious Killing of Tyre Nichols Give Congress the Political Will For Police Reform?


Is Washington capable of translating outrage into action?

Both Democrats and Republicans over the weekend condemned the vicious killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, which renewed calls for police reform. “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,” President Joe Biden said in a statement, as horrific video of police beating Nichols to death was released to the public. But such significant federal legislation seems an unlikely prospect in a divided Congress, where some leaders in the GOP-led House have already seemed to wave away the need for major reform. “I don’t know that there’s any law that can stop that evil that we saw,” House Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan said on Meet the Press Sunday. 

“There’s things we can do,” Jordan added. “I still think you want to keep this at the state and local level. This is a law enforcement issue.”

Still, Biden and Democratic leaders are promising to forge ahead. “We are calling on our colleagues in the House and Senate to jumpstart negotiations now and work with us to address the public health epidemic of police violence that disproportionately affects many of our communities,” Democrat Steven Horsford, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said in a statement Sunday. “The brutal beating of Tyre Nichols was murder and is a grim reminder that we still have a long way to go in solving systemic police violence in America.” 

While more systemic reform remains a longshot — if Democrats couldn’t get it done while they had unified control in Washington, it’s even more unlikely in a divided government — there may be an opportunity for at least some progress. Democratic Senator Cory Booker, who led the push for criminal justice reform in Biden’s first year until negotiations with Republican Senator Tim Scott fell apart that September, vowed over the weekend to “renew my legislative efforts” on policing, and is expected to reintroduce a version of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act he attempted to enact after the 2020 killing of Floyd in Minneapolis. “We can do better, we must do better, and this moment demands again that we muster the political will to act,” Booker said in a statement

Last time, that political will proved insufficient, as Scott — the only Black Republican senator — “was not willing to embrace so much of the change that we had agreed upon,” as Booker told Mother Jones in 2021. But even Jordan left the door open to more targeted reforms, and it’s possible the video of five Memphis officers, all of whom have been charged with murder, and their “SCORPION” police unit disbanded, beating Nichols to death could at least trigger some modest action. “People want to explore what are options that we could conceivably see come to the Congress,” a senior Democratic aide told Politico

It’s unclear what those items may be, but Republican Senator Lindsey Graham suggested Sunday that while he opposes lawsuits against individual officers, which they are currently protected against by “qualified immunity,” he believes that “holding police departments accountable makes sense.”

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