On Friday, June 23rd, the former police officers accused of the death of Tyre Nichols are scheduled to be in court again.
Demands for police reform at every level grew louder after Nichols’ death, some of which began three years ago with the killing of George Floyd.
While elected leaders in cities like Memphis have passed some police reform measures, the same hasn’t happened on the federal level.
Nichols’ death was another brutal beating by police that captured the world’s attention.
It was something Lynda Williams had seen before.
“Like many people, I was speechless when I really saw the footage that everyone else saw. I thought it was the most dehumanizing thing that I’ve seen,” said Williams regarding the video of Nichols’ being beaten and tased by Memphis police.
When George Floyd was murdered in 2020, Williams, a Memphis native and retired Deputy Assistant Director of the Secret Service, was serving as president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. She used her platform to advocate for members of Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.
“It gave transparency and accountability to the American people, to society, that law enforcement is not above the law,” said Williams, who now serves as Professor of Practice in Criminal Justice at Middle Tennessee State University.
The police reform bill would have banned no-knock warrants and chokeholds in federal drug cases and encouraged compliance from state and local agencies by tying it to federal funding.
It would have also limited qualified immunity, which protects officers from most civil lawsuits and made it easier to prosecute officers accused of misconduct.
“When we show that there are consequences, criminal consequences, that sends a great message,” added Williams.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act last passed the House in March of 2021 but died in the Senate. Some two years after that version was introduced and three years after Floyd’s death, it was the killing of another unarmed black man involving police, Tyre Nichols, that sparked renewed requests to move the legislation forward.
Vice President Kamala Harris called on lawmakers at Tyre Nichols’ funeral.
Just a month ago, on the third anniversary of Floyd’s death, President Biden urged Congress to enact what he called “meaningful police reform” saying he’s willing to work with both parties on “genuine solutions”.
Congressman Steve Cohen of Memphis says that’s what it will take to pass.
“I don’t know what will happen now. The Senate is still split. They still need to have some bipartisanship. But President Biden has brought some about,” explained Cohen.
When the House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in 2021, the vote fell along party lines. Every GOP lawmaker from Tennessee voted against it.
Cohen told WREG, “The bills are going to be considered. Whether it’ll pass or not, it’s probably a long shot.”
The WREG Investigators reached out to every lawmaker in Congress from Tennessee to ask how they might vote if the George Floyd Justice Policing Act came up again. We only got responses from three. That included Cohen, Representative David Kustoff (R-TN) as well as Representative Tim Burchett (R-TN) of Knox County.
Burchett was photographed speaking with RowVaughan and Rodney Wells the night of the State of the Union. He tweeted, “Tyre Nichols’ parents suffered an unimaginable tragedy”. When asked about the moment, a staffer told WREG the congressman saw them in the hallway, spoke to them briefly and gave them a hug.
The spokesperson said while she couldn’t say how Burchett might vote again, she shared his comments after voting against the original bill in 2020. Then Burchett said, “Yes, our country needs to prevent the killing of unarmed Americans but forcing one-size-fits-all federal standards on state and local governments will put law abiding citizens at risk.”
The spokesperson also noted Burchett was an original co-sponsor of the House version’s JUSTICE Act which also addressed police reform.
Congressman Kustoff didn’t comment directly on the legislation in an emailed statement but said about crime.
“The rising crime in Memphis, and across our nation, is one of the biggest issues we face today. As a former prosecutor, I have always been a leading voice for tough, law and order policies that protect our citizens. Clearly, we can, and must, do better. I will continue to work with officials at the local, state, and federal level to come up with the best solutions to protect our community,” said Congressman Kustoff.
Kustoff spoke out after Nichols death, saying after the video release “police brutality has no place in our community or any community”.
Senators Marsha Blackburn and Bill Haggerty of Tennessee also released statements, condemning the actions seen in the video and calling for an investigation.
Cohen told WREG, “Well, we’re used to seeing that in the House. The Republicans, any gun death, any mass shooting offered their thoughts and prayers, but don’t come forward with any activity to try to pass any kind of legislation. Thoughts and prayers don’t hack it. And it’s just difficult.”
“Maybe seeing the human dehumanization of a human being, to see just a human life just snuffed, it was horrific,” said Williams.
That Williams says, no matter one’s background or political party should move members of Congress to act.
The day after Tyre Nichols’ funeral in February, members of the Congressional Black Caucus met with President Biden to discuss the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.
Senator and now Republican presidential candidate Tim Scott, the lead Republican negotiator on the issue, said on Twitter the same day, “resurrecting the House progressive’ police reform bill is a non-starter”, but he added that he believes they can get something meaningful done that a majority could agree on.