Nearly a year after the police killing of George Floyd, pressure is mounting on President Joe Biden and members of Congress to show they are committed to holding police officers accountable for misconduct, excessive force and negligence after yet another agonizing week that has demonstrated how Americans of color are continuing to lose their lives during routine encounters with law enforcement.
At this pivotal moment when the nation is once again focused on the need to end these all-too-common occurrences, Biden seems uniquely positioned to take a leading role in brokering a compromise with Congress after his lifetime of work on crime and justice legislation.
But instead, Biden exhibited caution this week when addressing the death of another Black man and backed away from his campaign promise to create a police reform commission, convinced by advocates — according to White House officials — that a commission would be counterproductive to the passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.
Biden’s decision to stand down was a puzzling development given that there is no indication whatsoever that the Democratic legislation — which would create a national registry of police misconduct, ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants, and overhaul qualified immunity protections for police officers — has any chance in the 50-50 Senate after it passed the House in March without GOP support.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Karen Bass, a California Democrat, told CNN this week that she is engaged in informal talks with lawmakers from both parties, including Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, as well as White House officials, trying to find a path forward. But nearly a year’s worth of talks on Capitol Hill have yielded little in the way of results. In the meantime, Black and Brown men are still dying senseless deaths at the hands of police.
The deep fissures in the Democratic Party over what to do on the issue of policing have put Democrats in a difficult spot. During the 2020 elections, Republican hammered their Democratic opponents over radical calls to “defund the police” — attempting to portray all Democrats as sympathetic to a view that is held by a small minority. The attack, even on Democrats who have repeatedly spoken out against “defund the police” — is already resurfacing as a potent theme for the 2022 midterms as Republicans look to take control of Congress.
It’s a major reason why congressional leaders like House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, the No. 3 Democrat in the chamber, were quick to refute Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s argument that there should be “no more policing,” because, in her view, it cannot be reformed. “We’ve got to have police,” Clyburn said in an interview this week with CNN’s Don Lemon.
On Friday, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that the Justice Department is rescinding a Trump-era memo that limited the use of consent decrees that hold accountable police departments accused of misconduct. The last consent decree issued was to the Baltimore City Police Department in 2017, following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, according to the Justice Department.
Within a nation on edge, the latest incidents of police violence have drawn public outrage because they have unfolded in the midst of the trial of Derek Chauvin, the White former Minneapolis police officer who is being tried for Floyd’s murder. Protests erupted this week after the death of Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man who was shot by veteran Minnesota police officer Kimberly Potter in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center after he was initially pulled over for an expired tag and police learned that he had an outstanding warrant for a gross misdemeanor weapons charge.
Potter fired her Glock 9mm handgun after shouting “Taser, Taser, Taser” when Wright attempted to get back into the driver’s seat of the car while being detained by police, according to a summary of the criminal complaint. Brooklyn Center’s former police chief suggested that the shooting was accidental, and Potter made her first court appearance Thursday after being charged with second degree manslaughter.
“There’s never gonna be justice for us,” Wright’s mother, Katie Wright, told reporters on Thursday. “Justice would bring our son home, knocking on the door with a big smile, coming in the house, sitting down eating dinner with us, going out to lunch, playing with his one-year-old — almost two-year-old-son, giving him a kiss before he walks out the door.”
“We’re still going to bury our son,” she said. “So when people say justice, I just shake my head.”
While the nation was receiving an education on police use of force during the Chauvin trial, footage also emerged earlier this month of the shocking treatment of a Black and Latino US Army officer who was pepper-sprayed, knocked to the ground and threatened by Windsor, Virginia, police officers last December during a stop related to what police believed was a missing license plate (which was actually taped to his back window). With guns drawn, one of the officers, who has since been fired, told 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario he was “fixin’ to ride the lightning,” which Nazario’s lawsuit seeking compensatory damages describes as a “colloquial expression for an execution,” particularly in reference to the electric chair.
And in another difficult case, the Chicago Civilian Office of Police Accountability released body-worn camera footage Thursday that shows a police officer shooting 13-year-old Adam Toledo last month. Police say the boy was shot after the officer saw a gun in his right hand during a pursuit down a dark alley as police responded to a call of shots fired.
An attorney for Toledo’s family, Adeena Weiss-Ortiz, disputed the police account, stating the boy did not have a gun in his hand at the time he was shot. Weiss-Ortiz acknowledged that he could have had a gun in his hand during the encounter, but said he let go of whatever was in his hand when he turned to face the officer.
“The officer screamed at him, ‘Show me your hands,’ Adam complied, turned around, his hands were empty when he was shot in the chest at the hands of the officer,” Weiss-Ortiz told reporters Thursday. “If you’re shooting an unarmed child with his hands in the air, it is an assassination.”
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she did not see any evidence in body camera video that Toledo tried to shoot at officers before he was killed and she called on the Chicago police superintendent to change foot pursuit policies to better protect officers, suspects and bystanders.
“As a mom, this is not something you want children to see,” Lightfoot said during a news conference Thursday where she said her city has been “traumatized by a long history of police violence and misconduct.”
“We have to do better,” Lightfoot said. “We can’t afford to lose more lives.”
Democrats struggle with messaging on police reform
Biden’s cautious posture on policing issues since he has become President reflects the arms-length distance that he has maintained from the progressive left on a number of politically-fraught issues, including calls from some Democrats to expand the size of the Supreme Court, the suggestion that he should be doing more on gun control following a recent spate of mass shootings, and pressure to fulfill his own promise to raise the cap set on refugee admissions.
In the wake of the mass shooting at an Indianapolis FedEx facility that killed at least eight people, Biden on Friday called gun violence an epidemic, saying, “We must act.” But the executive actions Biden recently announced on guns — which the White House said are initial steps — are limited in scope, and the prospects for action in Congress appear slim in the face of GOP opposition.
On refugees, Biden is signing a declaration Friday to speed refugee admissions to the US but not to raise the refugee cap, as he has committed to doing — a significant reversal from his administration’s proposal earlier this year to lift the cap to 62,500.
Biden seemed to be aiming for a middle ground on the recent police violence before meeting with members of Congress about the American Jobs Plan in the Oval Office earlier this week. He called Wright’s shooting a “really tragic thing,” but added that everyone should “wait and see what the investigation shows — the entire investigation.” Clearly looking to deter the violence that marred some of the Floyd protests last year, he centered his remarks around a call for “peace and calm.”
“I want to make it clear again: There is absolutely no justification — none — for looting, no justification for violence. Peaceful protest, understandable,” Biden said Monday. “We do know that the anger, pain, and trauma that exists in the Black community in that environment is real — it’s serious, and it’s consequential. But it will not justify violence and/or looting.”
Later this week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki refused to say whether Biden believed Potter should face charges in Wright’s death.
Biden’s reticence reflects not only the deadlock in the deeply divided Congress, but also the fact that Democrats are still struggling to refine their message on police reform — knowing the issue will be a vulnerability at the ballot box in 2022 and 2024.
Last year, former President Donald Trump and Republicans tried to portray Democrats as weak on crime by inaccurately suggesting that Biden — and the party as a whole — agreed with the calls by some of the most liberal Democratic activists to “defund the police.” Though Biden rejected those calls, a Trump campaign ad misrepresented his position with a fictional portrayal of an older woman reaching an automated message while calling 911 as her home was being broken into.
In an interview with CBS News after the November 2020 election, when Democrats fell short of expectations in congressional contests, Clyburn bluntly said the “defund the police” slogan was “killing our party and we’ve got to stop it.”
Democrats’ sensitivity to those attacks was magnified this week by the swift response to Tlaib, a liberal Democrat, when she tweeted Monday that Wright’s death was not accident and “policing in our country is inherently & intentionally racist.”
“Daunte Wright was met with aggression & violence,” Tlaib tweeted. “I am done with those who condone government funded murder. No more policing, incarceration, and militarization. It can’t be reformed.”
Clyburn, a Democrat from South Carolina who helped Biden clinch the Democratic nomination last year, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who ran as a progressive to Biden’s left when he sought the White House in 2020, quickly brushed aside her argument.
“This is not about policing. This is not about training. This is about recruiting. Who are we recruiting to be police officers? That to me is where the focus has got to go. We’ve got to have police officers,” Clyburn told Lemon on “CNN Tonight.”
Sanders told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that he also did not agree with Tlaib’s calls to end policing: “What we need to do is to understand that there needs to be major, major police reform all across this country,” the Vermont independent said this week on “The Situation Room.” “We are tired of seeing the same thing, week after week and year after year, we do not want to see innocent African Americans, shot in cold blood. So, I think that is an area that needs significant amount of work.”
As the White House looked to Congress to take the lead on police reform legislation, Psaki was vague this week about what executive actions Biden might be willing to take on the issue. She suggested the White House is continuing to pin its hopes on the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act: “I know that does not solve all the issues. We’re not suggesting that. I would say this is an issue that will be a cause of President Biden’s time in office, and we are less than 100 days in. There is more to come.”
But as incomprehensible police shootings multiply with devastating consequences for the families, there is a fierce urgency in this moment, particularly as the nation waits for the verdict in the Chauvin trial. Justice in policing might be “a cause” that is more convenient for Biden to tackle later in his presidency. But by standing down and waiting for others to act, he may well miss this moment.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated when the last Department of Justice consent decree was issued.
This story has been updated with additional developments.