WASHINGTON — When Vice President Kamala Harris was called to the pulpit at the funeral for Tyre Nichols, she said the White House would settle for nothing less than ambitious federal legislation to crack down on police brutality.
“We should not delay. And we will not be denied,” Harris said to applause in Memphis, Tennessee. “It is non-negotiable.”
Back in Washington, however, progress appears difficult, if not unlikely. Bipartisan efforts to reach an agreement on policing legislation stalled more than a year ago, and President Joe Biden ended up instead signing an executive order named for George Floyd, whose murder at the hands of Minneapolis police set off nationwide protests nearly three years ago.
Now, with a new killing in the headlines, Biden and Harris will meet with members of the Congressional Black Caucus on Thursday to explore whether it’s possible to get legislation back on track.
“I am working to make sure that we have a clear plan,” said Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., who chairs the caucus.
The members of Congress attending the White House meeting with Horsford are Sens. Raphael Warnock and Cory Booker — two of the three Black senators — and Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, Jim Clyburn and Joe Neguse. Horsford remained mum on the agenda they were presenting to Biden, only saying that it was long past time to have a “genuine” conversation about policing in America.
The White House is facing fresh pressure to advance the issue, and even some political allies are frustrated with what they view as excess caution from Biden.
“I think the president is missing the opportunity to be a historic president when it comes to the social issues that continue to plague our country,” said Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y. “That’s what we need.”
Bowman described Biden as “a champion of the status quo in many ways,” and he said Biden needs to be “a champion of a new vision for America.”
The solution, Bowman said, is not “thoughts and prayers, come to the State of the Union after your kid gets killed,” a reference to Nichols’ mother and stepfather being invited to attend next week’s speech.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Wednesday that “we understand there’s a lot more work to do.” She blamed Republicans for blocking progress in Congress.
“The way that we’re going to deal with this issue 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 video of Nichols’ beating became public, about whether the situation could be a catalyst to “get things moving again.”
His organization, the nation’s largest police union, had participated in previous attempts to reach a bipartisan deal, and Pasco said “we welcome any constructive effort to help us do our jobs better.” The union’s president, Patrick Yoes, has condemned Nichols’ killing and said that “our entire country needs to see justice done — swiftly and surely.”
However, Pasco said, “we’re kind of in a wait-and-see mode right now,” with Republicans recently regaining control of the House, making legislative progress much harder.
“You’ve got to look at the political realities here,” he said.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Thursday signaled an openness to discussing the issue.
“I’ve had a couple of conversations with Tim Scott, who has really been the lead on many of these cases,” the California Republican told reporters Thursday. “We’ll make sure we get all the information back and work forward based upon that.”
For his part, Scott, the sole Black Republican senator, said resurrecting the previous Democratic bill is a “nonstarter.” He has implored Democrats to put aside “tribalism” in order to strike a deal on policing changes.
“I’ve been working toward common ground solutions that actually have a shot at passing,” Scott said. “Solutions to increase funding and training to make sure only the best wear the badge.”
The issue involves critical political questions for the White House. Biden has carefully balanced his approach, embracing calls for overhauling how police do their jobs while also emphasizing his longtime support for law enforcement and rejecting proposals to cut funding. He was elected with strong support from Black voters, and he’s preparing a reelection campaign that could launch in the near future.
As a former prosecutor and the first person of color to serve as vice president, Harris has faced particular scrutiny for her approach to police issues. While attending the funeral on Wednesday, she condemned Nichols’ death, saying “this violent act was not in pursuit of public safety.”
“When we talk about public safety, let us understand what it means in its truest form,” Harris said in her 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, that you’ll be there for them at a time of need,” he said.
Now, Morial said, “we need a substantive response, not a political response where they say, ‘Let’s just pass something.’”
Last year’s executive order was the product of negotiations among civil rights leaders and law enforcement organizations, and it mostly focuses on federal agencies by 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 modifications, such as making it easier to sue officers for misconduct allegations, have remained elusive.
“We haven’t gotten even a fraction of the changes that are necessary,” said Rashad Robinson, president of the activist group Color of Change. “We haven’t gotten the kind of structural change to policing that is required.”
Robinson said he was encouraged by the swift 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 something to make sure it doesn’t happen again?” he said. “Or do they want to make sure only individuals are punished?”