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Opinion Congress can honor Tyre Nichols with bipartisan police reform

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), left, talks with Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) at the Capitol in July. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which passed the House in 2021 but stalled in the Senate, would not have prevented the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols, who is being laid to rest Wednesday in Memphis. House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) cites this as a rationale for inaction. “I don’t know that there’s any law that can stop that evil that we saw,” he said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” This is the same excuse the country has heard to justify blocking sensible gun restrictions after countless mass shootings, and it’s just as lame.

While there’s no perfect solution to stop police brutality, the federal government could take several steps to deter misconduct and hold officers accountable without undercutting the ability of law enforcement to get bad guys off the streets. The officers charged with killing Mr. Nichols did not put him in a chokehold, but the move is still unnecessary and should be banned as a tool for subduing suspects. Limiting no-knock warrants wouldn’t have mattered in the Memphis case, but it could save others from the fate of Breonna Taylor, who was born the same day as Mr. Nichols: June 5, 1993. A national registry of sustained disciplinary actions against officers would make it harder for tainted officers to keep moving between departments. Federal law-enforcement grants that go to local governments should be conditioned on departments fully and reliably reporting their crime and use-of-force statistics to the FBI.

Christy E. Lopez: Cities should get rid of their toxic crime-suppression units

The Memphis Police Department already has a policy on the books requiring officers to “take reasonable action to intervene” if they observe a colleague “engaged in dangerous or criminal conduct or abuse of a subject.” It’s clear from watching the videos released on Friday, in which so many people wearing badges did nothing to save Mr. Nichols, that the force has cultural problems. Mandating better training so officers know what’s required of them won’t transform the culture alone, but it cannot hurt. Similarly, blaming systemic failures alone unfairly lets individuals off the hook, but that doesn’t mean the deeper issues should be off limits.

Ben Crump, an attorney for the Nichols family who also represents Floyd’s family, is pushing to finally enact the George Floyd Act. “Shame on us if we don’t,” he says. We, too, would love to see broad federal legislation that modifies the “qualified immunity” doctrine, which was largely invented by the Supreme Court and often blocks lawsuits for flagrantly unconstitutional abuses. But this and other elements of the George Floyd Act are unlikely to pass in the Republican-controlled House.

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Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), who has been the lead GOP negotiator on police reform, delivered an embittered floor speech Monday night that blamed Democrats for failing to scale back their ambitions and accept incremental policing legislation that more members of his party would support. He called for more grants to fund training for officers on their duty to intervene and increased funding for recruiting new officers. “We need the best wearing the badge,” Mr. Scott said. “We should have simple legislation that we can agree upon.” Democrats would rightly press for more than that, but they should still treat this as an invitation to talk.

President Biden signed a modest but commendable bill in December to help local departments implement de-escalation training to guide officers when they encounter people experiencing mental health crises. He issued an executive order in May, on the second anniversary of Floyd’s murder, to form a national accreditation system and a database of federal — though not state and local — officers who have disciplinary records. The president also ordered agencies under his direct control to update their use-of-force policies. But there’s only so much he can achieve without congressional backing. While key players in both parties privately express pessimism, the ground for some compromise nevertheless feels fertile. Improvement by increments is still improvement. Lawmakers should get to work.

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Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).