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Biden pledged police reform, but advocates see a diffcult path ahead

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

In his State of the Union address, President Biden pledged a number of reforms to improve police accountability. In the audience were the parents of Tyre Nichols, who was fatally beaten by Memphis police officers. And the president challenged a divided Congress to act.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Let's come together to finish the job on police reform. Do something.

SUMMERS: Here to talk more about this is Rashad Robinson. He's the president of the racial justice advocacy group Color of Change. Welcome.

RASHAD ROBINSON: Thank you for having me.

SUMMERS: Rashad, just to start, are you satisfied with how you heard President Biden address police reform in his State of the Union speech?

ROBINSON: Well, I think what we heard was in some ways exactly what we expect from President Biden at this point. I think the challenge - and you mentioned it, right? - we are in a divided government. So this is not about listing off a set of policies that you hope Congress will pass. This is about actually having a conversation with the American people about power.

SUMMERS: We should just note that the president previously signed an executive order that required federal law enforcement agencies to make a number of changes, including banning chokeholds, restricting no-knock warrants, mandating the use of body-worn cameras. But, Rashad, are there other things that you would like to see President Biden do unilaterally that would begin to chip away at this issue?

ROBINSON: Well, we think that there's just far too much interaction that is funded between law enforcement and community that does not lead to solving any crimes. The thing, though, about executive orders - and I'm glad you made it clear that this was about federal law enforcement - the vast majority of the issues that we are facing are happening at the local level. The executive order was the best that the president could do in the absence of the George Floyd Act passing.

SUMMERS: I'd like to ask you, if I could, about the George Floyd Justice In Policing Act. There were long negotiations on Capitol Hill on these issues. That bill passed the House. It could not clear the Senate, even with both chambers controlled by Democrats. So legislatively speaking, should the framework that was included in the George Floyd bill, should that be the place from where the work begins in this Congress? Or is there another starting point that you think that lawmakers should begin from?

ROBINSON: Well, we should absolutely start there. I remember the conversations with Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina was supposed to bring along 10 Republican senators in order to land the plane on getting the 60 votes necessary to pass that piece of legislation. Now, that didn't happen because what we know now is that law enforcement made a very clear signal that they were not supportive of this legislation. And now we also need to know if the Republicans who stood up for Tyre Nichols' family in the well of the Congress and clapped for them are willing to actually do more than clap.

SUMMERS: And to that end, Senator Scott has said recently that he believes that the George Floyd bill, that bill is a nonstarter this year. So where does that leave things?

ROBINSON: That leads us to ask Senator Scott, well, what is a starter? What we continue to hear from Republicans, from police unions, from police foundations, from the corporations that support them is that they want change, but they're unwilling to actually name it, that the proposals we put on the table are nonstarters, but they're unwilling to give us a starting place.

SUMMERS: Police violence happens in this country, often caught on film in excruciating detail. There are calls to action, and they remain unmet. Is there anything that gives you hope that this time will be different?

ROBINSON: What gives me hope is the advocacy and the progress we are seeing in so many local communities. The work to elect reform-minded district attorneys, the work to try new things around traffic stops and interactions with mental health advocates. The thing here that's important is that our civil rights can't just be a patchwork. They just can't shift when we move from one community to another, from one state to another. And that is the important role that the federal government has here.

SUMMERS: Rashad Robinson, president of the racial justice advocacy group Color of Change. Thanks, as always.

ROBINSON: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kai McNamee
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.