A State of the Union address is often a highlight reel of the president’s accomplishments — but it’s a policy wish list, too. It makes sense, then, that President Biden called upon Congress to “get the job done” on police reform in this year’s speech — which took place just over a week after video footage of Tyre Nichols’s fatal traffic stop was released to the public. “Imagine having to worry whether your son or daughter will come home from walking down the street or playing in the park or just driving their car,” Biden said during his remarks. “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 we need to do.”
Biden’s not the only one talking about police reform. Nichols’s death, which happened days after he was severely beaten by Memphis police officers and prompted murder charges against the accused officers, has renewed calls to pass a federal bill named for George Floyd, who was murdered by Minneapolis police officers in 2020. But its prospects for becoming law still look dim. The bill — which would have created a national police misconduct registry, banned no-knock warrants in federal drug cases, ended qualified immunity and prohibited racial and religious profiling by law enforcement, among other things — passed the House twice — once in spring 2020 and then again in spring 2021 — but stalled in the Senate each time. In 2021, neither side could overcome disagreements regarding union involvement or qualified immunity, which often protects police officers from being held personally liable for their actions.
Sure, those sticking points are still at play. But there are other hurdles, too. And a police reform bill introduced now arguably faces more hurdles than it did when it first passed a Democrat-controlled House two years ago. Perhaps the biggest obstacle that Democrats face this go-around is that the lower chamber is now controlled by Republicans. Plus, some GOP lawmakers have already expressed skepticism that federal police reform measures would have prevented Nichols’s death.
Will Tyre Nichols’s murder finally make Congress do something about police reform?
Another issue, though, is that many Americans — but Republicans, in particular — think there isn’t a systemic problem with police violence. In fact, several recent surveys report a large partisan gap in how Americans believe police treat Black people. According to a recent ABC News/Washington Post survey, 72 percent of Republicans are confident that the police treat Black and white people equally, compared with just 14 percent of Democrats. Meanwhile, a January survey by the Pew Research Center — which was fielded before the body cam footage of Nichols’s brutal beating was released — found that 70 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said that police across the country do at least “a good job” of treating racial and ethnic groups equally, while just 18 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents said the same. And a poll from YouGov/The Economist conducted after the release of the footage found that Republicans (42 percent) were more likely than Democrats (23 percent) to say that Nichols’s death was an isolated incident.
There’s a racial gap, too — both in how Americans perceive the problem and what they want lawmakers to do about it. A recent Morning Consult/Politico poll found that while 75 percent of all voters said police violence against the public was a “very” or “somewhat” serious problem in the U.S., Black voters (86 percent) were more likely than white voters (73 percent) and Hispanic voters (76 percent) to feel this way. Meanwhile, according to a YouGov/Economist survey, fewer Black adults (48 percent) than white adults (63 percent) said they were in favor of increasing funding for police departments to reduce civilian fatalities in encounters with the police.
That’s not to say that Biden is dreaming. He is reportedly on the same page as the Congressional Black Caucus with regard to the sort of police reform they’d like to see, though they’ve been tight-lipped about specifics. And more voters than two years ago say that police violence is a serious issue, with the biggest change among white and Republican voters. Morning Consult/Politico found a 9-point jump among white respondents and a 15-point jump among Republicans who said police violence was either a “very” or “somewhat” serious issue in the U.S., compared to a poll it conducted in May 2021.
The ABC News/Washington Post survey also noted an overall drop in confidence in police since July 2020. Back then, 47 percent of Americans said they trusted the police to treat Black and white people equally, and the same share said that law enforcement was properly trained to avoid the use of excessive force. By February 2023, however, those numbers had dropped to 41 percent and 39 percent, respectively.
And there continues to be widespread support for certain types of reform. For example, around 60 percent of white, Black and Hispanic Americans supported banning the use of chokeholds, according to YouGov/The Economist. Similarly, these groups were also generally in favor of assigning independent prosecutors to handle cases of police using fatal force, according to that same poll.
The State Of The Union was a preview of Biden’s likely reelection campaign
On their face, these numbers could mean that there’s more political momentum for a policing reform bill than there was a few years ago. But, as I’ve written earlier, gains in support for reform, among white Americans in particular, tend to be fleeting. For example, between June 2020 and March 2021, trust in the Black Lives Matter movement fell by a whopping 10 percentage points, while trust in law enforcement increased by 13 percentage points. And just last year, Biden encouraged state and local governments to use federal funds to bolster their police departments.
There’s reason to believe Biden’s enthusiasm could change this time, too. During his speech Tuesday night, right after mentioning the injustice that Nichols suffered at the hands of police, he was quick to follow up by saying that most police officers serve their communities honorably (a refrain that he’s often used while talking about race and racism).
The reasons for these shifts in tone are myriad, ranging from potential factors such as a decline in protests and less media coverage of ongoing calls for police reform. The pressure on local lawmakers to enact lasting change can be short-lived, too, depending on the news cycle and current events. And, in general, public opinion does ebb and flow with tragedy, a trend we’ve reported on with the debate over gun control. All of this is to say that despite Biden’s pleas for change last night, action on police reform will be hard to deliver.