There is a protocol and a pattern to the State of the Union address. First you attend to the pleasantries and the topics on which there is broad agreement. Then you get to the more difficult, ugly, and seemingly intractable things.
Tuesday night President Joe Biden followed the form, greeting old and long-serving friends and acknowledging those best described as political colleagues. He spoke first about policy changes made with bipartisan support. He praised the American value of hard work, and touted the economic promise of domestic manufacturing and strategic infrastructure spending. Then he implored the joint session of Congress to “do something, do something” about the state of American policing.
The president’s comments on policing left some who have long worked on police accountability troubled, even as they viewed his description of the problem as heartfelt. His compassion, they said, was unmatched by a sense of urgency or specific and new proposals or demands.
“Public safety depends on public trust, as all of us know,” Biden said just before acknowledging two of his invited guests, the parents of Tyre Nichols, a Black man allegedly beaten to death by Memphis police in January and buried last week. “But too often that trust is violated.”
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Biden rattled off a list of actions he has taken and changes he supports that he says will improve policing: increased accountability for officers, more training, a narrowed focus on law enforcement as opposed to crisis interventions for those struggling with a host of mental health and other issues, restrictions on the conduct of federal officers.
There was also ample commentary reflecting the politics of policing reform. Biden’s speech included language suggesting he has talked with a sufficient number of Black and Latino parents to describe elements of the much-discussed “talk” some American parents must have with their children about not always effective strategies for interacting safely with police. Then he acknowledged the myriad and difficult tasks assigned to police and professed a belief that most police officers are good and decent people trying to enforce and abide by the law.
It was the final line that ranked among those that, in the chamber, received the loudest applause.
For some it was predictable.
“He’s going to say more policing, more money, and here’s what I did, now Congress you should do that too,” said Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of the Advancement Project, hours before Biden’s speech. “More money for body cameras, and I’m sure he will talk about crime prevention and then violence prevention. So, I don’t think the needle has been moved.”
The Advancement Project is one of a number of civil rights organizations that have long worked on a panoply of issues including policing in the United States. During the more than 20 years she has spent with the organization, Browne Dianis says she has come to recognize a list of politically and socially palatable things that elected officials will say or propose to do about policing and an even smaller list of changes that have actually been made.
“There just aren’t a lot of electeds, especially at the federal level, who are willing to take a hit for this,” she said. “They are more willing to let more Black people die than to take a hit.”
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Police organizations are powerful, she said. They give large amounts of money to the campaigns of elected officials. They actively lobby for their policy interests. And, because policing is routinely portrayed as salaried hero work for people taking on extreme risk in the news, in entertainment, and in the speeches of public officials, pervasive ideas have taken root in the culture that make sustained and detailed public criticism of police rare. Those ideas or, as she described them, narratives, are so powerful that they appear to override for many Americans the reality that’s made plain by the amount of public money spent on police training and body cameras, the largely unchanged number of people killed by police each year, and the demographic patterns within the list of those who die. They have also helped to justify special police units, such as the Scorpion unit that arrested and attacked Tyre Nichols in Memphis. They have left a trail of aggressive, sometimes excessive use-of-force incidents across the country while enjoying a reputation for “preventing crime,” not supported by evidence, she said.
“There’s not only that but the powerful narrative of Black criminality,” she said. “This widespread belief that the abuse is merited or justifiable to keep Black people under control. So we are stuck. We’re stuck because it is all justified and justifiable in too many minds.”
In the end, Browne Dianis’ predictions for the speech proved largely correct, though Biden spoke more directly about the people most affected.
In 2022, Biden had called for those in the chamber and by extension the nation not to defund the police but support more policing. “We should all agree the answer is not to defund the police, “ the prepared text of Biden’s 2022 State of the Union address read. “It’s to fund the police. Fund them. Fund them. Fund them with the resources and training — resources and training they need to protect our communities.” On Tuesday Biden also spoke about the need to fund programs and services that research has shown to reduce community violence – affordable and better quality housing, job programs, and services capable of meeting the nation’s addiction and mental health crises.
After Biden’s address Tuesday, Udi Ofer, director of the Policy Advocacy Clinic at Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs and a former deputy national political director of the ACLU, described Biden as someone who seems deeply committed to addressing the root causes of violence and generally supportive of policing reforms but not entirely willing to make the latter a priority. Policing changes sanctioned by the Biden Administration in a May 2022 executive order have lacked urgency, he said.
A primary example: a still nonexistent national database of problem officers. Had it been created by the executive order’s Jan. 20 deadline, it might have put the country on a road to preventing a well-documented phenomenon where officers implicated in wrongdoing on the job are suspended, quit or are fired, then quickly rehired by the same or other law enforcement agencies. Among other things, the absence of this database makes it difficult to track just how many problem officers the country’s jurisdictions have employed.
“It was an element of the executive order that the President and police-accountability advocates both heralded,” Ofer said. “Yet publicly, thus far, this failure has not been explained.”
Jan. 20 was instead the day that five Memphis police officers were fired for their roles in the arrest and beating of Tyre Nichols.
On Tuesday night, Biden never explicitly called on Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a package of police measures that includes an end to qualified immunity, a concept that courts have interpreted as a shield protecting police officers from personal civil liability for their on-the-job actions. The bill, which passed the House but could not clear hurdles for a Senate vote, was named in honor of a Black man killed by Minneapolis Police officers in 2020. Biden could have also spoken directly about the known track record of specialized policing units, Ofer says.
“He could have talked about the push to create specialized warrior-like policing units and we need our police to be guardians, not warriors,” Ofer said. “So you could either read that as sloppy writing or read that as a broader statement. Look, Biden has surrounded himself with people who have a strong commitment to police reform, but I think it’s been a struggle within the Administration how high up on the priority list this should be. I think President Biden is very committed to the preventative measures and I loved that part of the State of the Union speech, but when it comes to actual policing reform, there is less of that.”
Ofer thinks the reforms included in Biden’s executive order will eventually happen but how long it takes matters, he said.
Police killings – that’s shootings and other deaths caused by police beatings or other activities – rose in 2022 to a 10-year high, according to tracking projects maintained by the Washington Post and a nonprofit organization Mapping Police Violence. Several Democrats brought as their guests to the State of the Union people who knew the human cost of this violence all too well. Inside the House Chamber on Tuesday were Anthony Scott, brother of Walter Scott, 50, a South Carolina Black man shot in the back and killed by a police officer in 2015. He was a guest of Assistant Democratic Leader Rep. James Clyburn. Andre Locke, father of Amir Locke, 22, a Black man shot and killed by Minneapolis police in 2022 during a home raid seeking another person, was there too. He had been invited by Rep. Ilhan Omar. And Michael Brown Sr., father of Michael Brown Jr., an 18-year old Black teen killed in 2014 by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., was a guest of Rep. Cori Bush. Only one of the officers involved in this list of deaths has been charged with a crime. In 2017, the officer was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison.
On Tuesday, after mistakenly referring to Nichols as Tyler rather than Tyre, Biden also echoed something Nichols’ mother has said repeatedly: something good must come from this.
“Folks, it’s difficult, but it’s simple,” Biden said. “All of us in this chamber, we need to rise to this moment. We can’t turn away. Let’s do what we know in our hearts that we need to do. Let’s come together to finish the job on police reform.”
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