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Black caucus sees State of the Union as an important chance to push for police reform

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus meet with President Biden and Vice President Harris in the Oval Office on Feb. 2 to discuss police reform.
Chip Somodevilla
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Members of the Congressional Black Caucus meet with President Biden and Vice President Harris in the Oval Office on Feb. 2 to discuss police reform.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus are calling on President Biden to use the power of the bully pulpit to push for police reform in the wake of the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols, a Black 29-year-old father, at the hands of Memphis police.

"It may have been Tyre Nichols yesterday, but it could be any one of us today and tomorrow," CBC Chairman Steven Horsford, D-Nev., said during a Tuesday morning press conferenceahead of the State of the Union.

Nichols died in a hospital three days after being pulled over for what police said was reckless driving. Five officers who beat Nichols were indicted and jailed on charges including second-degree murder. Other officers have been relieved of duty pending an investigation.

"He was a son. He was a father. He was a man, a Black man who had a passion for skateboarding, and photography and sunsets. We all want to be safe," Horsford said. "There's no one who cares more about public safety than the people who are impacted every single day by the fear, the anxiety, the trauma, and yes, even the loss, because of encounters that we have historically faced as Black people in America."

We don't want an end to policing. We want an end to bad policing. And all of us should agree that bad policing has no place anywhere in our communities in America.

The Nevada Democrat referenced a meeting last week he and his colleagues had with Biden and Vice President Harris to discuss police reform.

"Legislative action, executive action and community-based solutions — that's what we're calling for," he told reporters. "That's what we spoke to the president and the vice president about. That's what we expect to hear at the State of the Union tonight."

Horsford previously told NPR that while Congress has the uphill battle of passing legislation in divided government, he believes Biden himself has a meaningful role to play.

"I believe the president has the ability to bring us together in a very unique way," he said, pointing out the president's role in passing gun safety legislation and the bipartisan infrastructure legislation. "We expect the president to be involved in helping us reach consensus in a bipartisan way on comprehensive police accountability and justice reform."

Rep. Shontel Brown, D-Ohio, said Biden's speech "needs to address the unnecessary deaths of innocent people at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve us."

"The American police brutality epidemic is unsustainable and police reform innovated through community-driven solutions must be one of our president's top priorities for every mom, for every dad, son, daughter, and brother in our nation, grieving the loss of their loved ones at the hands of those sworn to protect us," she said during Tuesday's press conference.

Brown invited Samaria Rice to be her guest at the State of the Union. Rice's 12-year-old son Tamir was killed by police in Cleveland in 2014.

Calls to revive the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act

President Biden has already called on Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, legislation that previously passed in the House but faced steep Republican opposition in the Senate.

The legislation sought to ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants in certain cases, mandate data collection on police encounters and alter qualified immunity for law enforcement.

Bipartisan talks on the legislation between then-Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., and Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Tim Scott, R-S.C, broke down after months of negotiations in 2021.

Those negotiations will be even tougher now with a Republican-led House and a narrowly divided Senate.

Still, Biden recently said he spoke to Nichols' mother and pledged he would make "the case to Congress" to pass that legislation.

"I can only do so much at the executive order, at the federal level," he told reporters. The White House says Biden intends to raise the issue in his address Tuesday night.

RowVaughn Wells, Tyre Nichols' mother, will attend the speech as a guest of the White House.

"I hope today that we can get Congress to see that we need to pass this bill because this should never happen," she said.

"We really need to do something to get this resolved," she said. "We can't have another child dying at the hands of the police officers."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.