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Calls for police reform in US meet hurdles

By AI HEPING in New York | | Updated: 2023-02-06 10:40
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A man attends a protest against police brutality in Washington, DC, the United States, Jan 27, 2023. Protesters hit the streets in some US cities following the release of footage showing a deadly police beating of an African American man. [Photo/Xinhua]

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday — with the parents of Tyre Nichols scheduled to attend — US President Joe Biden is expected to urge Congress once again to enact meaningful police reform. The applause likely will be there from members of Congress, but few expect enough votes for reform.

The demand for police reform in the United States following the beating death of Nichols by Memphis, Tennessee, police officers hasn't been louder since a white policeman in Minneapolis put his knee on the neck of George Floyd, another black man, for or 9 ½ minutes, killing him on May 25, 2020.

From nationwide protests that were mostly peaceful, to the halls of Congress and the White House and to Nichols' funeral in Memphis on Feb 1, demands for police reform have been high, but the expectation of any meaningful reform, especially on the federal level, is low.

"The only thing that's keeping me going is that I truly believe that my son was sent here on assignment from God. And I guess now his assignment is done. He's gone home," said Nichols' mother, RowVaughn Wells, at the funeral of her 29-year-old son.

Vice-President Kamala Harris attended Nichols' funeral and demanded that Congress pass the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act, legislation she co-authored during her time in the Senate.

"Joe Biden will sign it," Harris said. "And we should not delay, and we will not be denied. It is non-negotiable."

In 2021, lawmakers pledged to pass meaningful reform. In a nationally televised address, Biden told Congress to "get it done'' by the anniversary of Floyd's killing. It didn't.

Then talks focused on writing compromise legislation curbing law enforcement agencies' use of force and making them more accountable for abuses. But negotiations stalled over Democrats' demands to make individual police officers accused of abuses liable for civil penalties.

A major hurdle was qualified immunity, a rule that shields law enforcement from liability in civil lawsuits unless accusers can prove that the allegations amount to a violation of constitutional rights and those rights are "clearly established".

It is a hurdle that several activists and some lawmakers say is unclear in many police misconduct cases.

Republicans and law enforcement groups like the Fraternal Order of Police have resisted easing that limitation.

Now, members of Congress are seeking to revisit police reform talks after the release of videos showing five Memphis officers fatally beating Nichols. All have been charged with second-degree murder.

Lawmakers who were close to a deal the last time are now looking to see if any remnants of a compromise have the chance of passing a newly divided Congress. Republicans now control the House, and Democrats have a very slim majority in the 100-seat Senate.

"I think it's probably less likely to happen now with divided government," said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas and a close adviser to Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

"I'm not confident that we are going to be able to get real police reform. I approach working on this issue as a responsibility that I have to do — that we must try," Representative Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, said in a statement.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the top GOP member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that Congress is "probably less likely" to succeed on a police bill now than in 2021.

Law enforcement experts say that there also are issues of entrenched cultures of impunity and brutality within some of the nation's 1,800 police departments.

Congressman Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, told NBC's Meet the Press on Jan 29 that there may not be anything Washington can do to prevent what happened to Nichols from happening again.

"I don't know that there's any law that can stop that evil that we saw," said Jordan. "That is just I mean, just difficult to watch. What strikes me is just the lack of respect for human life. So I don't know that any law, any training, any reform is going to change."

What happened in Memphis is "just basic, bad police culture," said Georgetown University law professor Christy Lopez, a former Justice Department official who helped oversee the federal investigation into the police department in Ferguson, Missouri, after an officer fatally shot Michael Brown, an 18-year-old, in 2014.

"We've known for a long time we have bad police culture," Lopez told The Washington Post. "This just underscores the enormity of a problem that requires every state to work and every community to work on this. In some ways, we have to remake expectations of what policing is."

Biden has signed a more limited executive order to overhaul policing on the second anniversary of Floyd's death. It took several actions that can be applied to federal officers, including efforts to ban chokeholds and expanding the use of body-worn cameras.

But the president can't mandate that local law enforcement adopt the measures in any order he signs. Such executive action presents the levers the federal government can use, such as federal grants and technical assistance, to encourage local law enforcement to get on board.

Meanwhile, states — especially state attorneys general — and the Justice Department have been initiating investigations into local police departments.

They are filling a gap created by President Donald Trump's administration, during which the Justice Department investigated one unit of one police department.

In 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued an order limiting the department's ability to investigate and oversee the nation's local police departments, saying it wasn't the federal government's responsibility to oversee local policing. He also said the investigations hurt police morale.

Under Biden, the Justice Department has announced investigations into the Minneapolis, Louisville, Phoenix, New York City and many more police departments.

In Tennessee, a group of lawmakers, promised change will come from the state legislature, and there has been a call by the Justice Department to investigate that could lead to a federal court order known as a consent decree, which would mandate change at the Memphis police department.

In the year after Floyd was killed, at least 25 states had considered some form of qualified immunity reform.

"There has been quite a bit of change," said Stephen Rushin, a law professor at Loyola University Chicago who studies policing. "People often expect or want to see big, sweeping national action at the federal level. But policing is handled overwhelmingly by localities. So the changes that happen are often changes within departmental policies, with departmental manuals or general orders, within union contracts or state statutes," he told The Washington Post.

"I think qualified immunity should stay in place for individual officers, but I've always been of the view that departments need to be held accountable," Graham told reporters.

Since Floyd's death, police have also shot and killed more people than they did beforehand. Fatal shootings by police have risen each year since 2020, and last year, police shot and killed nearly 1,100 people, according to a Washington Post database tracking such cases.

A 2021 study published in the Lancet medical journal found that deaths from police violence were dramatically underreported, with US national statistics failing to log 17,000 deaths from 1980 to 2018. That amounted to 55.5 percent of all police-related deaths.

That percentage was even higher for black people, who faced the highest age-standardized police mortality rate. The study authors found that black people were 3.5 times more likely to die as the result of encounters with police than white people.

"We need to take some action because there should be no other child that should suffer the way my son — and all the other parents here have lost their children — we need to get that bill passed," RowVaughn Wells said as her son was buried. "Because if we don't, that blood — the next child that dies — that blood is going to be on their hands."

Agencies contributed to this story.

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