Black lawmakers pressure DOJ on police reform: 'Tyre Nichols and other lives depend on it'

People gather at Times Square in New York on Jan. 28 to protest against the police assault of Tyre Nichols.
A protest at Times Square in New York on Jan. 28 against the police assault of Tyre Nichols. (Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images) (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus are pushing the Justice Department to follow through more aggressively on President Biden’s 2022 executive order on police reform.

“Some of these provisions should have been completed by now,” Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., who heads the group of Black lawmakers, said during a press conference last week. “Tyre Nichols and other lives depend on it.”

Horsford announced that his caucus had submitted a letter demanding data from the Justice Department on Biden’s executive order, signed last May, that instituted new rules for federal law enforcement officers. Those officers would be required to wear body cameras, stop using chokeholds and limit no-knock warrants, among other rules. Biden also called for a national database of police misconduct; federal law enforcement agencies would be required to submit data to it, while state and local police would be encouraged to do so.

“Today I am sending a letter to the Department of Justice calling on them to do their job. To provide the Congressional Black Caucus with a response to President Biden’s executive order on the guidance that they need to be giving to the 13,000 law enforcement departments across this country,” Horsford said.

The screen at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans honors Tyre Nichols before an NBA game on Jan. 28.
The screen at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans honors Tyre Nichols before an NBA game on Jan. 28. (Matthew Hinton/AP) (AP)

The Justice Department insisted it is not dragging its feet on Biden’s executive order.

“The department has been hard at work every day of the past nearly 10 months implementing the more than 90 deliverables assigned to the department in the EO [executive order],” a department spokesperson told Yahoo News. “We continue to work on these and many other deliverables and are prioritizing stakeholder engagement to ensure our efforts are successful and responsive to the needs and concerns of both law enforcement and community members.”

Reform advocates hope the high-profile police killing of Tyre Nichols will spark action from lawmakers and federal agencies. Memphis police bodycam and surveillance footage showed officers brutally beating Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, during a traffic stop on Jan. 7. Nichols later died from his wounds; five officers were charged with second-degree murder.

On Wednesday, the Justice Department launched an investigation into the Memphis Police Department.

“What we are saying as the Congressional Black Caucus is that no one should die as a result of a traffic stop,” Horsford said at the press conference. Yahoo News reached out to the CBC for additional comment.

Civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who represents the Nichols family, says he is optimistic that the CBC will get a response from the federal agency. “We don't want to lose momentum. We don't want this to be swept under the rug,” Crump told Yahoo News.

But experts say Biden’s executive order won’t be enough to implement long-term police accountability nationwide because it is a short-term solution.

President Biden signs an executive order on policing in the East Room of the White House on May 25, 2022.
President Biden signs an executive order on policing in the White House on May 25, 2022. (Alex Brandon/AP) (AP)

“Executives [orders] are just that. They execute laws and figure out how to implement public policies, but they don't have very much enforcement power, and that is by systemic design,” Brandy Faulkner, a professor of political science and Black studies at Virginia Tech, told Yahoo News.

Instead, civil rights leaders say passing the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is the best course of action, but that legislation is stalled in Congress.

“There have been very few proposals for comprehensive reform, and I think one of the best opportunities that we had to move forward with comprehensive reform was the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act,” Faulkner said.

After the civil unrest following the death of Nichols, advocates renewed their push for Congress to pass the legislation. During Nichols’s funeral, Vice President Kamala Harris called the bill “nonnegotiable.”

“We demand that Congress pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, and we should not delay, and we will not be denied,” she said at the funeral.

Almost three years after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police, some are skeptical that Congress will get something done. But Crump hasn’t lost hope. “At this point, we're still waiting to find out if the Democrats and the Republicans agree to at least have a basic framework of what such a law may look like,” he said.

While on the campaign trail, Biden promised to address police reform and create a national police oversight commission in the first 100 days of his presidency. But these promises have fallen short, prompting state leaders to take matters into their own hands.

Malaysia Hammond places flowers at a memorial mural for George Floyd at the corner of Chicago Avenue and 38th Street in Minneapolis on May 31, 2020.
A mourner places flowers at a memorial mural for George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 31, 2020. (John Minchillo/AP) (AP)

“This is one example of many examples of how state legislatures have to lead on these issues because the federal government is so dysfunctional,” Maryland General Assembly Delegate Lesley Lopez told Yahoo News.

In her state, Lopez sought to create county police accountability boards with civilian oversight after the death of Floyd. The bill passed the Maryland Legislature in 2021.

“We knew that we had issues in our state, just like every state does, but I think that the final impetus was seeing a man being executed,” she said.

This year, Lopez will continue to push for additional reforms. “The bill I'm introducing basically takes the county model and allows municipalities to also implement civilian oversight via police accountability boards,” she said.

The Georgia NAACP is also advocating for police accountability, and it is asking the public to help by signing an online petition.

“We at the Georgia NAACP are launching a tour around the state to have a real conversation about 21st century policing, how we hold police accountable, how we make sure there’s justice in this state,” attorney Gerald Griggs, the president of the organization, said during a video announcement last month.

As state leaders seek greater accountability for law enforcement, Horsford says the Department of Justice confirmed that it has received the CBC's letter and will provide a response along with a meeting with the caucus.

“Time is of the essence,” Horsford said at the March 2 press conference. “We don’t want to end policing. We want to put an end to bad policing. All of us, regardless of party, should agree that bad policing has no place in America.”