At the State of the Union, President Biden must do more than push policies that allow police to keep harming Black people

OPINION: This year, we need to hear more than shallow promises for solutions that exacerbate the problem of policing.

Tyre Nichols x George Floyd Act
Demonstrators protest the death of Tyre Nichols on January 28, 2023 in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

There is no reforming the police. You can’t reform a system built on the legacy of slavery, a system whose entire purpose is to maintain white supremacy. It is impossible to sincerely call for reform when Black people have been killed by police while sleeping in bed or their cars, driving their cars and struggling to breathe. Police officers assault, injure and, in cases like the killing of Tyree Nichols, brutally murder people because our laws, institutions and society at large allow them to do it.

Recently, President Joe Biden told a crowd that police officers must be retrained to use lethal force less frequently. Last year, he called for putting 100,000 new officers on the streets. This aligns with his stance on policing overall. He has always maintained a pro-police stance even in the face of continued violence against Black people at the hands of police. It’s time for a significant shift.

On Tuesday, Feb. 7, President Biden will address the nation at the annual State of the Union. This is his opportunity to show us that he sees our grief and intends to do something about it, something effective. Nothing will bring back Tyre Nichols or ease the pain and anguish of his family. And yet, we can still take concrete steps toward creating a future where Black people and our communities are safe and free.

This is what we want to hear:

We must remove police from traffic enforcement. 

There is no reason why a driver should be harmed or killed over violations as minor as not using a turn signal early enough, having a loud exhaust or driving with a broken taillight. But it happens with alarming frequency.

The most common way to encounter police is during traffic stops. Often these stops are pretextual and nothing more than racial profiling. Black drivers are more likely than white drivers to be pulled over in cities across the country. A 2018 study in Nashville, for instance, exposed that the per capita stop rate was 44% higher for Black drivers than for white drivers. 

And these stops, which often have nothing to do with public safety, have directly resulted in harm, violence and death. According to a New York Times investigation conducted in 2021, over the last five years, police killed more than 400 unarmed drivers or passengers. These are instances where officers were not in pursuit of stopping a violent crime. Predictably, only five officers were convicted among the many responsible for these killings.

President Biden can take federal officers out of traffic stops, incentivize the same for local police departments and call on local leaders to do the same. This can include establishing civilian traffic response units that follow best practices to improve road safety. It can look like building non-police first responder teams who exist to keep roads safe rather than enforce criminal law. 

In fact, some cities already operate under a model where police do not make rote traffic stops or police other minor violations. These include cities like Oakland, Los Angeles, Berkeley, Seattle, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh

We must invest in people, not police.

Last year, President Biden called on Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. Though it ultimately did not pass, this proposed legislation would have put more resources into policing. More importantly, it wouldn’t have stopped the actions of the police who killed Tyre Nichols. This tells us that such measures do not meet the moment. 

We do need to end qualified immunity so officers can be held accountable, but we also need to invest in community-centered interventions that keep us safe without putting people at unnecessary risk of harm or violence. Things like more police training or increased diversity won’t keep us safe from police violence.

To this end, the president should call on Congress to pass legislation that focuses on investing in communities to meet the needs of people, including things like community-based violence intervention programs, mental health support and housing. We need to hear commitment from the very top to solutions that invest in us.

It is no longer enough to offer condolences while pushing policies that allow police officers to keep harming Black people. This year, we want to hear more than shallow promises for solutions that exacerbate the problem of policing. Our communities deserve a path forward where everyone can be truly free and safe. 

Judith Browne Dianis has served as a lawyer, professor and civil rights advocate in the movement for racial justice. Hailed as a voting rights expert and pioneer in the movement to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline, Dianis leads Advancement Project National Office’s work in combating structural racism in education, voting, policing, criminal justice and immigration.

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