President Joe Biden used his State of the Union address Tuesday to call on Congress to pass legislation to ”give law enforcement the training they need, hold them to higher standards, and help them succeed in keeping everyone safe.”
Biden’s comments came as the issue of legislation to address police training and practices continues to gained new urgency following the beating last month of an unarmed Black man by police in Memphis, Tennessee. Tyre Nichols died three days later. Six officers have been fired so far.
“I know most cops are good. decent people,” Biden said. “They risk their lives every time they put on that shield. But what happened to Tyre in Memphis happens too often. We have to do better....And when police officers or departments violate the public’s trust, we must hold them accountable.”
Nichols’ mother, RowVaughn Wells, and stepfather, Rodney Wells, looked on from first lady Jill Biden’s box in the House gallery as Biden called for the new policing legislation that goes beyond the executive order he signed last year, which banned chokeholds and restricted no-knock warrants for federal law enforcement officers.
“Let’s commit ourselves to make the words of Tyre’s mother come true, something good must come from this,” Biden said. “All of us in this chamber, we need to rise to this moment. We can’t turn away. Let’s do what we know in our hearts we need to do. Let’s come together and finish the job on police reform.”
That’s the bill that U.S. Sen. Cory Booker has been trying to find bipartisan support for in order to overcome a Senate Republican filibuster and enact policing legislation into law.
“Right now, I’m exploring every legislative possibility to get a bill to the president’s desk that will increase transparency, accountability and professionalism in policing, make our communities safer, and deliver justice to Tyre Nichols and the countless others like him,” Booker said Tuesday.
Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-12th Dist., and others were wearing buttons reading “1870.” That was the year that Henry Truman of Philadelphia became the first known unarmed free Black person to be killed by police.
“Here we are in 2023 and it is an every day occurrence,’' Watson Coleman said. “It hasn’t gotten better over the decades; it’s gotten worse.”
Watson Coleman said she had the buttons made up and distributed them to her colleagues.
“I just feel like we need to continue to make a statement and need to draw attention to the fact that Black men in particular and Black women also are dying at the hands of law enforcement officers who are abusing their power,” she said.
“One of the ways of doing that is to create a situation where people say, ‘What is that, what is it about, why are you wearing it?’ and we can begin a conversation about what we are experiencing and how we need to be more committed to legislation, police training and accountability.”
The House approved legislation in March 2021 named for Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee against his neck for more than eight minutes. His death sparked nationwide protests.
But negotiations on the bill in the Senate between Booker and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only Black Republican in the Senate, broke down in September 2021. The New Jersey Democrat said he was continuing to talk to Scott and other GOP senators to see if there was a way to come up with a compromise.
Scott, though, has made it clear that the House-passed bill was a non-starter.
Booker said over the weekend that he was “sobered” about the chances of passing a comprehensive bill with Republicans in charge of the U.S. House, but a smaller measure was possible.
“I have my eyes wide open and I know that the path forward will be difficult with a Republican-controlled House,” Booker said Tuesday.
Biden had been urged to mention efforts to overhaul policing practices and training by members of the Congressional Black Caucus during a meeting Thursday with the president and Vice President Kamala Harris at the White House.
“The president uses the State of the Union to speak about the issues that are important to the country, that are important to his agenda,” Watson Coleman said. “To include this in his discussion affirms the importance and significance of it to our country and to our president.”
Booker said that laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the First Step Act of 2018 — the criminal justice law that he made his top priority since being elected to the Senate in 2013 — were the product of years of hard work, and said a comprehensive policing bill will take time as well.
“We won those fights because collectively, as a country, we can join together to live up to our principles of justice for all,” Booker said.
“I want to see meaningful legislation pass into law and I know we will get there.”
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Jonathan D. Salant may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him at @JDSalant.