Durbin calls on senators to push again for police reform after Tyre Nichols' death

He pointed to the previous negotiations with Sens. Cory Booker and Tim Scott.

January 29, 2023, 11:30 AM

In the wake of Tyre Nichols' "horrible" death following his beating by police in a traffic stop in Memphis, Tennessee, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin on Sunday called on his colleagues to restart efforts to pass federal police reform.

"It's the right starting point," Durbin, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, told ABC "This Week" co-anchor Martha Raddatz of earlier work between Democratic Sen. Cory Booker and Republican Sen. Tim Scott and others after George Floyd's murder.

Those efforts ultimately stalled on Capitol Hill. Among the major sticking points in the negotiations were qualified immunity, which shields police from lawsuits, and how officers should be prosecuted, ABC News reported at the time.

"Sen. Booker, chairman of the crime subcommittee, has been working on this for years. I think he and Sen. Scott should sit down again quickly to see if we can revive that effort," Durbin said on "This Week."

A similar bill, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, repeatedly passed the House under Democrats and President Joe Biden has said it should be taken up again.

Booker and Scott's bipartisan talks would have banned the use of chokeholds and no-knock warrants, among other measures, Durbin noted.

While Durbin said those provisions were "necessary," they wouldn't be totally "sufficient" in addressing policing in America. The solution required something "larger in scope," he said.

"We need a national conversation about policing in a responsible, constitutional and humane way," he said. "These men and women with badges put them on each day and risk their lives for us. I know that. But we also see, from these videos, horrible conduct by city officers and unacceptable situations. We've got to change."

The 29-year-old Nichols died on Jan. 10, three days after being pulled over by police in Memphis and subsequently attacked by officers -- which was recorded by police and area cameras.

The five officers involved were all fired and have been charged with second-degree murder, among other counts. Two of their attorneys have said they will plead not guilty; the others haven't commented.

Graphic footage of the fatal confrontation was released on Friday and showed Nichols being struck by police multiple times as he was standing up and after he'd fallen to the ground. It then showed officers standing around Nichols for roughly 20 minutes before any of them began to render aid.

In this Sept. 28, 2022, file photo, Sen. Richard Durbin speaks during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images, FILE

Durbin said his reaction to the footage was "heartbreak."

"My heart goes out to the Tyre Nichols family to think that their son went through this. And it just tells us that we live in an age now, with video cameras and with DNA evidence, where our system of justice and law enforcement is under greater scrutiny, as it should be," he said.

"You were there when the Rodney King video came out in '91 [of King being beaten by Los Angeles police], spoke about how horrific it was then and yet there really has not been anything passed that would prevent this," Raddatz said.

"Understand that law enforcement, by and large, is a state and local responsibility. That does not absolve us," Durbin said.

Ben Crump, an attorney for the Nichols family, told Raddatz on Sunday that he asked President Joe Biden to use the Nichols tragedy as an opportunity to "march back in the United States Senate" and kickstart talks on reform.

"Without federal police reform, I think we're going to continue to see these hashtags [from police killings] proliferate so much more so that we can keep up with them," Crump said.

Nichols' family has also been pushing for Tennessee to pass "Tyre's Law" to require a "duty to intervene" by law enforcement.

Memphis already had some reforms in place when Nichols was killed, including a ban on chokeholds and de-escalation policies.

Protesters gather during a rally against the fatal police assault of Tyre Nichols, in Atlanta, Jan. 28, 2023.
Cheney Orr/AFP via Getty Images

When asked how deadly altercations still happen with such measures in place, Crump said the nation also needs to address "the institutionalized police culture."

"And it doesn't matter if the officers are Black, Hispanic, or white," he said. "It's part of the culture -- this bias culture that says this is allowed. And so just as much as those officers are responsible for the death of Tyre Nichols, so is that implicit bias police culture that exists in America."

Durbin echoed Crump's concerns about the policing system and said change could come from "screening, by training, by accreditation to up the game, so that the people who have this responsibility to keep us safe really are stable and approaching this in a professional manner."

Asked if there should be a federal investigation of the Memphis Police Department, Durbin said he "would not rule that out."

"We have to be honest about this," he said. "There are good policemen out there risking their lives for us but there are some that should not be on the force. So let's get down to the basics are in terms of protection that Americans want to have in their communities."