Tennessee Governor signs bill to undo Memphis traffic stop reforms after Tyre Nichols death

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Thursday signed off on the repeal of police traffic stop reforms made in Memphis after the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols by officers in January 2023, despite pleas from Nichols’ parents to GOP lawmakers and the Governor to give them a chance to find compromise.

The Republican Governor’s signature means the law immediately renders some of Memphis’ ordinances null and void, including one that outlawed so-called pretextual traffic stops, such as for a broken taillight and other minor violations. Lee echoed arguments from Republican lawmakers who argued Nichols’ death needed to result in accountability for officers who abuse power, not new limits on how authorities conduct traffic stops.

“I think what’s most important for us to remember is that we can give law enforcement tools, but we’ve got to hold law enforcement to a standard of using those tools appropriately, where there’s an appropriate interaction with the public,” Lee told reporters Friday, earlier this month of his decision to sign the bill. “That’s not what we understand has happened all the time, and certainly their family would attest to that.”

To date, Lee has never vetoed a piece of legislation since taking office nearly seven years ago, only occasionally letting bills become law without signing them to send a message of his concern or disapproval. He rarely bucks his political party’s wishes, and he is notably attempting to push through a contentious universal school voucher bill where he needs Republican support in order for it to pass.

Nichols’ death last January sparked outrage and calls for reforms nationally and locally. Videos showed an almost 3-minute barrage of fists, feet and baton strikes to Nichols’ face, head, front and back, as the 29-year-old Black man yelled for his mother about a block from home.

Nichols’ parents, mother RowVaughn Wells and stepfather Rodney Wells, were among the advocates who drummed up support for the Memphis City Council last year to pass ordinance changes.

Many Republican elected officials in Tennessee also joined in the public outcry over Nichols’ death at the time. The month afterward, Lee even mentioned the Nichols family in his annual State of the State speech, saying “their courage, along with the compassion shown by the people of Memphis, is a picture of hope.”

Yet the majority-white Legislature has repeatedly rebuffed many Black leaders’ call for police reforms and oversight, and instead have sided with advocates who don’t want new limits on police authority.

In recent years, lawmakers have reacted similarly when they disagree with how Democrat-voting Memphis and Nashville run their cities. They have preempted local power to undo progressive policies, took more authority over local boards, and kept a hardline approach to crime in Memphis.

Nichols’ parents, in this case, said their attempts to get the bill sponsors to commit to finding some middle ground failed, leaving them and supporters in the Memphis community feeling marginalized and discouraged. Nichols’ parents said they felt misled by Rep. John Gillespie, leading them to skip one trip to Nashville when they thought he would delay the bill. Instead, House Republicans passed it without the Nichols’ parents there. Gillespie argued it was a miscommunication.

When they returned another day for the Senate vote, Sen. Brent Taylor denied their pleas to pause the bill and try to find middle ground. RowVaughn Wells was in tears after the exchange, and the couple left before the Senate passed the bill.

They also penned a letter to Lee before he ultimately signed the bill.

“After the death of our son, you generously offered your support in our pursuit of justice,” they wrote, imploring Lee to veto the bill. “This is that moment, Governor. We need your support now, more than ever.”

Five officers, who were also Black, were charged with federal civil rights violations in Nichols’ death, and second-degree murder and other criminal counts in state court. One has pleaded guilty in federal court. The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating how Memphis Police Department officers use force and conduct arrests and whether the department in the majority-Black city engages in racially discriminatory policing.

Democratic lawmakers said the bill is a slap in the face to Nichols’ grieving parents and the government in majority-Black Memphis. Some also were flummoxed that state Republicans were trying to undo changes made in reaction to Nichols’ death even while federal authorities are still broadly investigating policing and race in Memphis.


Republished with permission from The Associated Press.

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