From his bully pulpit, President Biden can lead a national discussion of police reform after the killing of Tyre Nichols. His best response would confront key questions without setting off a repeat of the same tired rationalizations from defensive leaders on the right.
Another rationalization is even more shopworn. The killer cops in Memphis were “bad apples.” Imagine brushing away a spate of plane crashes by saying that most pilots land safely. The acceptable number for both should be zero.
The worst rationalization: He ran! He argued! As if anything less than perfect submission to reckless cops deserves a death sentence.
Biden should try to reverse the discussion and ask: Why do police kill so frequently, and how can we prevent (or at least reduce) these incidents? His answer might proceed through three important points.
First: level with Americans. We have a long-standing national problem. Too many people die from police shootings, and a disproportionate number are Black. This is not “wokeism.” It’s a fact, derived from a huge body of data. The Mapping Police Violence project found: “Black people were 26% of those killed by police in 2022 despite being only 13% of the population.” Moreover, two-thirds of police killings begin with nonviolent encounters: a traffic stop, a mental health situation, or other incident. Why do so many of these end in death?
Second: point to tangible solutions. Armed police should not be stopping cars for simple traffic violations. Traffic cameras can handle infractions such as expired tags, enforcement of which produces many of these deadly encounters. Likewise, police should never be allowed to shoot a nonviolent, fleeing suspect. The penalty for running from a traffic stop cannot be death.
It is not anti-police to say that police cannot solve every problem. Biden should argue for focusing police on violent and property crimes.
Third: advocate for programs that have a proven track record of reducing police shootings, such as crisis intervention for dealing with the mentally ill, de-escalation and implicit bias training). There is no magic pill, but a combination of tactics, plus better screening of recruits, should be deployed wherever possible.
Democrats should not be ensnared in a fake debate about “defunding” the police. Instead, they should defend funding the best practices of police. Police departments that employ violence-reduction techniques should get the benefits of federal funding and other protections.
Many Republicans now play to White grievance and fears. They lionize White vigilantes, hype inner-city crime and ridicule diversity. Biden must take on those who pander to white supremacy. He should call on the country to face hard facts and commit to fix a broken system. Americans are more open to reform than the right imagines.