By Senator Lena C. Taylor
On April 28, 2021, President Joe Biden took to the floor of the U.S. Capitol. In an address to a Joint Session of Congress, Biden reflected on the response to COVID-19. In his opening remarks he said, “One hundred days ago, America’s house was on fire. We had to act…. the overwhelming support of the American people — Democrats, independents, and Republicans — we did act.” The truth was that some of us acted, some of us complained, and some of us threw gasoline on the fire.
Towards the end of that speech, Biden referenced the murder of George Floyd. “My fellow Americans, we have to come together to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the people they serve, to root out systemic racism in our criminal justice system, and to enact police reform in George Floyd’s name that passed the House already” he stated as he implored legislators to “get it done next month, by the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death”. Then, there was applause. We should have looked more closely, to see who wasn’t clapping.
Fast forward nearly 2 years to another Biden speech… The State of the Union address. Another Black man, killed at the hands of law enforcement, is mentioned in his speech. Tyre Nichols’ death fuels another plea for police reform. This time the President put a name to his ask: the Safer America Plan. The proposal calls on Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. The goal is to advance accountability, transparency, and public trust in law enforcement. It also comes with the realization that many state legislatures and local governments will need a nudge to make meaningful reforms. Many federal lawmakers require a full-fledged push.
In the meantime, President Biden signed an executive order to attempt to do something to address accountable policing and improve public trust. For federal law enforcement agencies, body cams are in and chokeholds are out. No-knock warrants came with restrictions and a new national database was created to house police misconduct information. Ironically, the order also included language about policies mandating a duty to intervene and duty to render medical aid. Tyre Nichols could have used that law on the night of his beating in Memphis, Tennessee. Yet, an executive order is only as good, as who sits in office the following term. This is why it is important to get Congress to act.
The President’s Safer America Plan does everything from providing for additional police officers, standardizing provisions of his Executive Order, to investing in crime prevention strategies. The Plan is comprehensive and covers housing insecurity, mental health, substance abuse, and community violence intervention programs. Whether technology upgrades, employment or training pathways, the Plan seeks to stabilize communities through reforms, resources, and a recommitment to creating a fairer justice system. Yet all of this, may not change a culture that is pervasive in some law enforcement agencies.
In closing the State of the Union, Biden said “My fellow Americans, we meet tonight at an inflection point. One of those moments that only a few generations ever face, where the decisions we make now will decide the course of this nation…” The blood of Tyre Nichols stains many hands and some of them belong to members of Congress.