With Tyre Nichols’ parents in attendance, Biden will tackle police reform in his State of the Union address

February 7, 2023, 7:23 PM UTC
RowVaughn Wells and Rodney Wells sit with Vice President Kamala Harris during the funeral service for their son Tyre Nichols at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church on Feb. 1.
Andrew Nelles—Getty Images

Like many Black leaders, Michael C. Bush, CEO of Great Place to Work, worried there’d be violence after the release of a video last week showing Memphis police brutally beating Tyre Nichols.

“I have been to City Hall in my city yesterday and today to [ensure] out-of-towners don’t create foolishness tonight,” he wrote in a candid email exchange. “Tyre Nichols and his compassionate and peaceful family have once again paid the ultimate price to create the world we seek.”

Police reform, top of mind for Bush, is also on the agenda for tonight’s State of the Union address. The Congressional Black Caucus had pushed President Joe Biden to support new police reform legislation publicly, specifically the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last March. The legislation introduces several new measures to increase police accountability, including a registry of officers with records of violence.

Nichols’ parents, RowVaughn and Rodney Wells, will attend the address and sit in the first lady’s box tonight.

“We need to get that bill passed,” RowVaughn Wells told mourners at her son’s funeral. “Because if we don’t, that blood, that next child that dies, that blood is going to be on their hands.”

Critics fall along predictable lines.

The conservative Heritage Foundation argues that the bill, which also bans no-knock warrants and prevents state and local police departments from receiving surplus military equipment, would make police officers less safe. Many progressive groups, like the Movement for Black Lives, argue that the proposed reforms simply rehash old strategies that have never worked and don’t prioritize the needs of marginalized communities.

Bush, along with Nichols’ parents, finds hope in the swift action of Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis, who abandoned the typical investigative delay tactics and immediately fired the officers involved and disbanded the Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods (SCORPION) unit, which she created in 2021 to address the high levels of violence in certain neighborhoods. (Davis had led a similar and similarly unpopular specialized policing unit she inherited as a commander in Atlanta in the 2000s.)

Five officers have since been charged with murder.

“She has done what has never been done before, or rarely done before,” Bush told me, saying her lived experience as a Black woman, combined with actual position power, is a win for diversity. “Cerelyn innovated. I believe she has set a standard of leadership that will give us a new standard for what is possible in law enforcement. The result is a tectonic change in law enforcement and safer communities.”

While change is slow and often messy, representation matters.

“This is needed in corporations as well. The same benefits await us if we have the courage to make decisions that have not been made before,” Bush says. “Every CEO loves ‘diversity of thought.’ While people debate the need for other dimensions, they somehow don’t debate this one. To apply diversity of thought to history means we need people who think differently to ask questions, think critically, analyze data, and test all assumptions.”

And it’s why leaving police reform in the hands of a polarized Congress feels like a performative exercise, a dereliction of duty that forces ordinary people, as Bush says, to create the world we seek.

Nichols’ mother, RowVaughn, says the assignment has now been passed to others.

“The only thing that’s keeping me going is that I truly believe that my son was sent here on assignment from God,” she said tearfully at her son’s funeral. “And I guess now his assignment is done. He’s gone home.”

Ellen McGirt

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Ruth Umoh.

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Parting words

"My vision is to bring viewers deep into what I am seeing through my eye and through my lens."

A quote from Tyre Nichols, used to launch his celebration of life tribute, which included his photo and video work

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