At this pivotal moment when the nation is once again focused on the need to end these all-too-common occurrences, Biden seems uniquely positioned to take a leading role in brokering a compromise with Congress after his lifetime of work on crime and justice legislation.
Biden’s decision to stand down was a puzzling development given that there is no indication whatsoever that the Democratic legislation — which would create a national registry of police misconduct, ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants, and overhaul qualified immunity protections for police officers — has any chance in the 50-50 Senate after it passed the House in March without GOP support.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Karen Bass, a California Democrat, told CNN this week that she is engaged in informal talks with lawmakers from both parties, including Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, as well as White House officials, trying to find a path forward. But nearly a year’s worth of talks on Capitol Hill have yielded little in the way of results. In the meantime, Black and Brown men are still dying senseless deaths at the hands of police.
The deep fissures in the Democratic party over what to do on the issue of policing have put Democrats in a difficult spot. During the 2020 elections, Republican hammered their Democratic opponents over radical calls to “defund the police” — attempting to portray all Democrats as sympathetic to a view that is held by a small minority. The attack, even on Democrats who have repeatedly spoken out against “defund the police” — is already resurfacing as a potent theme for the 2022 midterms as Republicans look to take control of Congress.
Potter fired her Glock 9mm handgun after shouting “Taser, Taser, Taser” when Wright attempted to get back into the driver’s seat of the car while being detained by police, according to a summary of the criminal complaint. Brooklyn Center’s former police chief suggested that the shooting was accidental, and Potter made her first court appearance Thursday after being charged with second degree manslaughter.
“We’re still going to bury our son,” she said. “So when people say justice, I just shake my head.”
An attorney for Toledo’s family, Adeena Weiss-Ortiz, disputed the police account, stating the boy did not have a gun in his hand at the time he was shot. Weiss-Ortiz acknowledged that he could have had a gun in his hand during the encounter, but said he let go of whatever was in his hand when he turned to face the officer.
“The officer screamed at him, ‘Show me your hands,’ Adam complied, turned around, his hands were empty when he was shot in the chest at the hands of the officer,” Weiss-Ortiz told reporters Thursday. “If you’re shooting an unarmed child with his hands in the air, it is an assassination.”
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she did not see any evidence in body camera video that Toledo tried to shoot at officers before he was killed and she called on the Chicago police superintendent to change foot pursuit policies to better protect officers, suspects and bystanders.
“As a mom, this is not something you want children to see,” Lightfoot said during a news conference Thursday where she said her city has been “traumatized by a long history of police violence and misconduct.”
“We have to do better,” Lightfoot said. “We can’t afford to lose more lives.”
Democrats struggle with messaging on police reform
Before meeting with members of Congress about the American Jobs Plan in the Oval Office earlier this week, Biden seemed to be aiming for a middle ground, calling Wright’s shooting a “really tragic thing,” but adding that everyone should “wait and see what the investigation shows — the entire investigation.” Clearly looking to deter the violence that marred some of the Floyd protests last year, he centered his remarks around a call for “peace and calm.”
“I want to make it clear again: There is absolutely no justification — none — for looting, no justification for violence. Peaceful protest, understandable,” Biden said Monday. “We do know that the anger, pain, and trauma that exists in the Black community in that environment is real — it’s serious, and it’s consequential. But it will not justify violence and/or looting.”
Later this week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki refused to say whether Biden believed Potter should face charges in Wright’s death.
Biden’s reticence reflects not only the deadlock in the deeply divided Congress, but also the fact that Democrats are still struggling to refine their message on police reform — knowing the issue will be a vulnerability at the ballot box in 2022 and 2024.
Democrats’ sensitivity to those attacks was magnified this week by the swift response to Tlaib, a liberal Democrat, when she tweeted Monday that Wright’s death was not accident and “policing in our country is inherently & intentionally racist.”
“Daunte Wright was met with aggression & violence,” Tlaib tweeted. “I am done with those who condone government funded murder. No more policing, incarceration, and militarization. It can’t be reformed.”
Clyburn, a Democrat from South Carolina who helped Biden clinch the Democratic nomination last year, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who ran as a progressive to Biden’s left when he sought the White House in 2020, quickly brushed aside her argument.
“This is not about policing. This is not about training. This is about recruiting. Who are we recruiting to be police officers? That to me is where the focus has got to go. We’ve got to have police officers,” Clyburn told Lemon on “CNN Tonight.”
As the White House looked to Congress to take the lead on police reform legislation, Psaki was vague this week about what executive actions Biden might be willing to take on the issue. She suggested the White House is continuing to pin its hopes on the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act: “I know that does not solve all the issues. We’re not suggesting that. I would say this is an issue that will be a cause of President Biden’s time in office, and we are less than 100 days in. There is more to come.”
But as incomprehensible police shootings multiply with devastating consequences for the families, there is a fierce urgency in this moment, particularly as the nation waits for the verdict in the Chauvin trial. Justice in policing might be “a cause” that is more convenient for Biden to tackle later in his presidency. But by standing down and waiting for others to act, he may well miss this moment.