On Wednesday, mourners gathered to celebrate the life of Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man fatally beaten last month by Memphis officers. Vice President Kamala Harris attended the funeral service, which took place less than a week after footage of the 3-minute assault was released.
Demonstrators peacefully protested in Dallas over the weekend and in other cities across the U.S. Now, a group of Black Texas lawmakers is helping to lead the chorus demanding comprehensive reform.
The Texas Legislative Black Caucus expressed outrage in response to Nichols’ “violent, senseless death” via a statement posted to Twitter earlier this week.
“Our hearts break knowing that in the last moments of his life, he called for his mother who was close by,” the lawmakers wrote. “These injustices cannot be justified.”
Social justice advocates have long pushed for police reform — an effort that intensified following the 2020 murder of George Floyd, a Black man whose brutal police killing was also captured on video. Widespread protests erupted in the aftermath of Floyd's death, but calls to “defund the police” have still largely gone unanswered.
We will continue to speak truth to power and FIGHT for justice!— Texas Black Caucus (@txblackcaucus) January 30, 2023
Read our statement below on the murder of Tyre Nichols and what we're committed to doing in the #txlege. #JusticeforTyreNichols pic.twitter.com/U1E02Vk1SO
The Texas Black caucus on Monday vowed to seek out “bipartisan state solutions so that our Black communities no longer have to live in fear and endure the trauma of mourning a loved one.”
Chair Ron Reynolds, a Democratic state representative from Missouri City, noted that lawmakers last session failed to pass the George Floyd Act, which would have introduced sweeping law enforcement changes. In fact, the conservative-majority Texas Legislature in 2021 instead passed laws cracking down on demonstrators and curbing cities’ ability to cut police budgets.
“The question that lawmakers must answer: How many more lives will it take until reforms are made a priority?” Reynolds said in the group's written statement. “Our caucus is committed to doing everything in our power this session to work on legislation that will address the violence against Black lives and prevent the senseless murder of our people."
"We know that the impact of unnecessary law enforcement interactions with Black people in particular can be deadly." – Dustin Rynders, Texas Civil Rights Projecttweet this
Memphis police had pulled Nichols over in the minutes leading up to his fatal beating. After details of his killing became known, five officers — all of whom were Black — were fired and subsequently charged with second-degree murder. Two additional officers were later relieved of duty.
Certain U.S. cities, including Berkeley, California, and Minneapolis, have sought to reduce low-level traffic stops by police in recent years. The Brennan Center for Justice reported in November that since 2017, nearly 600 people have been killed by cops after getting pulled over, with Black motorists at a greater risk of violence.
Dallas state Rep. Venton Jones, a Democratic member of the caucus, wrote to the Observer that he's praying Nichols’ family and community are able to heal. He also wants to see the involved officers held accountable.
Jones mentioned several bills that caucus members have proposed, including one that he said he's joint-authoring with Reynolds. House Bill 762 would ban no-knock warrants, which frequently lead to deadly outcomes for both residents and officers.
“The Black Caucus is working on finding solutions to prevent these tragic situations from ever happening again,” Jones said, “and I’m hopeful we can make some meaningful change in our police system.”
Meanwhile, civil rights organizations in the Lone Star State have joined in condemning Nichols’ death.
Leaders with the Texas Civil Rights Project are urging Houston officials to enact what they see as much-needed adjustments to traffic enforcement. Violations such as bumper issues, minor obstructions and broken taillights and headlights would receive less scrutiny under the group's proposed changes.
Dustin Rynders, director of TCRP's criminal justice reform team, told the Observer that studies suggest routine traffic enforcement does little for public safety. At the same time, he said, it can lead to high-risk scenarios for Black and brown drivers, in addition to the officers themselves.
Rynders acknowledged the progress that some communities in the U.S. have made, including Philadelphia, which last year prohibited minor traffic stops.
“We know that the impact of unnecessary law enforcement interactions [with] Black people in particular can be deadly,” he said. “What happened to [Nichols] is heartbreaking, it's infuriating — but it can no longer be surprising because we've seen it time and time again.”
At least one Texas city has started making progress in this area though, Rynders noted. San Antonio recently announced that it's joining the national "Lights On" program, whereby officers give out vouchers to cover the cost of repair for broken car lights instead of issuing tickets.
Rynders also called attention to a bill from state Sen. Royce West, a Dallas Democrat, aimed at improving accountability in law enforcement. Among other aims, Senate Bill 571 would create a way for people to legally challenge an officer who deprives them of their rights and would ban police techniques that impede blood circulation or breathing.
Rynders further criticized other “over policing” efforts in Dallas, including the city’s push to criminalize panhandling. “There are people who don't understand that for many individuals, seeing police doesn't make them feel safer because they know of things like what happened to Tyre Nichols,” he said. “So, we really have to think of solutions to the underlying causes of social problems — and it can't be a criminal response to things that criminal law can't address, like poverty and addiction.”