WASHINGTON (AP) — When Vice President Kamala Harris was called to the pulpit at Tire Nichols’ funeral, she said the White House would settle for nothing less than ambitious federal legislation to crack down on police brutality.
“We shouldn’t delay. And it will not be denied to us,” Harris said to applause in Memphis, Tennessee. “It’s not negotiable.”
Back in Washington, however, progress looks difficult, if not unlikely. Bipartisan efforts to agree on police legislation stalled more than a year ago, and President Joe Biden ended up instead signing an executive order named after George Floyd, whose murder at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked nationwide protests almost three years ago.
Now, with a new murder in the headlines, Biden and Harris will meet with members of the Congressional Black Caucus on Thursday to consider whether the legislation can be put back on track.
“I’m working to make sure we have a clear plan,” said Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., who chairs the caucus.
The White House is facing renewed pressure to move the issue forward, and even some political allies are frustrated by what they see as excessive caution on the part of Biden.
“I think the president is missing out on an opportunity to be a historic president when it comes to the social issues that continue to plague our country,” said Rep. Jamaal Bowman, DN.Y. “This is what we need.”
Bowman described Biden as “a proponent of the status quo in many ways” and said Biden must be “a proponent of a new vision for America.”
The solution, Bowman said, is not “thoughts and prayers, come to the State of the Union after your son is killed,” a reference to Nichols’ mother and stepfather who were invited to attend next week’s speech.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Wednesday that “we know there is still a lot of work to be done.” He blamed Republicans for stalling progress in Congress.
“The way we are going to deal with this is to have federal legislation,” Jean-Pierre said. “That’s how we’re going to move forward.”
Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, said he was in touch with the White House last Friday when the video of Nichols’ beating became public, asking if the situation could be a catalyst to “get back on track the things”.
His organization, the nation’s largest police union, had participated in previous attempts to reach a bipartisan agreement, and Pasco said “we welcome any constructive effort to help us do our jobs better.” The union’s president, Patrick Yoes, has already condemned the killing of Nichols and said that “our whole country needs justice done, quickly and safely”.
However, Pasco said, “we’re in a hold-and-go mode right now,” with Republicans recently regaining control of the House, making legislative progress that much more difficult.
“You have to look at the political realities here,” he said.
The matter involves critical political issues for the White House. Biden has carefully balanced his approach, welcoming calls for an overhaul of how police do their jobs, while also emphasizing his longstanding support for law enforcement and rejecting proposals to cut funding. He was elected with strong support from black voters and is preparing a re-election campaign that could be launched in the near future.
As a former prosecutor and the first black person to serve as vice president, Harris faced particular scrutiny for his approach to policing. As he attended the funeral Wednesday, he condemned Nichols’ death, saying “this violent act was not in the pursuit of public safety.”
“When we talk about public safety, we try to understand what it means in its truest form,” Harris said in his short speech. “Tyre Nichols should have been safe.”
Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, said he was encouraged that Harris attended the funeral.
“This is what people expect, for you to be there for them in their time of need,” she said.
Now, Morial said, “we need a substantive response, not a political response that says, ‘Let’s push something through.'”
Last year’s executive order was the product of negotiations between civil rights leaders and law enforcement organizations, and focuses primarily on federal agencies requiring them to review and revise policies on the use of force.
The administration is also encouraging local departments to participate in a database to track police misconduct.
But deeper changes, such as making it easier to sue officers over misconduct allegations, have remained elusive.
“We haven’t gotten even a fraction of the changes needed,” said Rashad Robinson, president of the activist group Color of Change. “We haven’t gotten the kind of structural change in policing that is needed.”
Robinson said he was encouraged by the quick arrests of the Memphis police officers responsible for beating Nichols. However, he said that shouldn’t be the end of the matter.
“Are those in power willing to do anything to make sure it doesn’t happen again?” he said. “Or do they want to make sure that only individuals get punished?”