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Nichols' death triggers another push for legislation to rein in police misconduct

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The video of Tyre Nichols being punched and kicked by policemen as he lay on the ground, a beating that would lead to his death, has triggered yet another push for legislation in Congress to rein in police misconduct. A bill named after another Black man who was killed by police as it was filmed, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, passed the House but failed in the Senate two years ago. Republicans and Democrats couldn't agree. So is anything different today? I asked Congressional Black Caucus whip Maryland Strickland, a Democrat from Washington, what's possible in a deeply polarized Congress.

MARILYN STRICKLAND: The brutal beating of Tyre Nichols shows that we desperately need police reform. In the 116th Congress that predates me, the 117th that I entered last year and moving forward into 118th, you know, we want to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. And the House has passed it twice. Now, the Democrats are in the minority this time. So we're looking to the Senate to show some leadership and see what can be done, because when we passed it before, it didn't get through the Senate.

FADEL: For this to pass, it needs to be bipartisan. You need Republican buy-in. Is that possible?

STRICKLAND: You know, I think it is possible. What we're proposing with the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is nothing extraordinary. It's meaningful reform that's going to end racial and religious profiling. We're going to address chokeholds and no-knock warrants. We want to improve transparency and collect data on police misconduct and have a national database and standard. And so at the end of the day, this is about safer communities and, to be honest with you, better policing.

FADEL: If that piece of legislation was currently law, would this have stopped what we saw? Because ultimately, the police report that described what happened to Tyre Nichols was very different than the video we saw. It described a violent man instead of what we saw, a man being beaten. And we didn't see one strike from him.

STRICKLAND: Well, you know, realistically, you know, we cannot legislate what is in someone's heart and what's in someone's mind. But we can send a message to law enforcement that excessive use of force and abuse of power is something that we will not tolerate. And there will be consequences if you engage in that behavior.

FADEL: On Sunday, Senator Lindsey Graham floated a compromise on qualified immunity, which protects law enforcement, individual officers, from civil lawsuits. And that had been a major sticking point between Republicans and Democrats in previous talks on police reform. Does his proposed compromise - to have police departments, not individual officers, held liable - open a path to bipartisan legislation on police reform?

STRICKLAND: Well, I would say this - because the Democrats are in the minority now and we depend so much on the Senate, I think our approach has to be, what is possible, given the makeup of our legislative body right now in both chambers? At the end of the day, we want this behavior to stop. That's what we want. We want our communities to be safe. And we want to feel safe when we interact with law enforcement. A lot of young people who are Black and brown are afraid of the police, when in theory, we should be able to turn to them when we're afraid, when something is happening. And so I know a lot of it is changing the culture of policing. We know that disproportionately, African Americans and Black and brown people are the ones who typically get pulled over and have interactions with police officers.

FADEL: Yeah.

STRICKLAND: And so, when we talk about what we want, we also want to see fairness across the board. And, you know, driving while Black, walking while Black, sleeping while Black in your home, should not be a death sentence.

FADEL: Is anything different about the conversations with your Republican colleagues this time around? I mean, you've been in these conversations before. And ultimately, they didn't lead to the passing of legislation.

STRICKLAND: I think the question becomes, you know, how many more times are we going to watch this happen and do nothing? And I think that's the question I have for my Republican colleagues. And I'm hopeful that, you know, this starts in the Senate, we have buy-in from Senate Republicans, we bring this to the House - that there are enough good people on the other side of the aisle who will say, this is something that's good. Police reform and safe communities are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they make communities more safe.

And I think it's also getting past this idea that reform is anti-police. This false narrative that Democrats are anti-police is simply not true. We support police officers. We want safe communities. And we know that public safety is a large continuum that starts with economic opportunity, good schools, giving people a sense of hope so that they don't even have contact with the justice system. But if they do, we want it to be fair. We want it to be just. And when people abuse their power and use excessive force that results in tragedy, people must be held accountable.

FADEL: Congresswoman Marilyn Strickland, thank you so much for your time.

STRICKLAND: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.