Toll of police brutality on display at State of the Union

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RowVaughn Wells, center, mother of Tyre Nichols, who died after being beaten by Memphis police officers, and her husband Rodney Wells, second left, are recognized by President Joe Biden as he delivers his State of the Union speech to a joint session of Congress, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON – The toll of police brutality in America was on painful display Tuesday night as family members of Black men and women killed in custody joined lawmakers in the Capitol to hear President Joe Biden's State of the Union address.

Seated near first lady Jill Biden were the mother and father of Tyre Nichols, who died after being savagely beaten by Memphis, Tennessee, police officers last month.

“There are no words to describe the heartbreak and grief of losing a child,” Biden said after introducing RowVaughn and Rodney Wells to a standing ovation. “But imagine what it’s like to lose a child at the hands of the law.”

The president described the difficult conversation Black parents have to have with their kids about police at a young age.

“Most of us here have never had to have ‘the talk,'” Biden said. “Let’s come together and finish the job on police reform.”

Mothers, fathers and loved ones of victims of police violence were invited as guests of the Congressional Black Caucus and the first lady to put pressure on Washington to address the issue of policing.

“It may have been Tyre Nichols yesterday, but it could be any one of us today and tomorrow,” Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., the chairman of the Black Caucus, said of the most recent victim during a news conference Tuesday morning.

A video released earlier this month showed the violent Jan. 7 encounter between Nichols and the Memphis, Tennessee, police officers who beat the 29-year-old Black FedEx worker for three minutes while screaming profanities at him. Nichols was hospitalized and died days later. Five police officers, who also are Black, have been fired and charged with second-degree murder and two more have been disciplined.

Days after the release of the video, Horsford reached out to Nichols' parents, RowVaughn and Rodney Wells, to invite them to the State of the Union address. The Nevada Democrat said it was important that the couple witnessed the president's speech as he laid out the important issues facing Americans.

“Being in the room for the State of the Union is an experience that I hope will give Tyre Nichols’ parents some comfort and, most of all, hope," Horsford said. “They deserve to hear a commitment to real action on ending this national scourge of unnecessary deaths at the hands of law enforcement.”

Also in attendance, Tuesday night were the mother of Eric Garner and the brother of George Floyd, among others.

The visible reminder of police brutality comes against the backdrop of reignited negotiations among lawmakers to draft a modest proposal for police reform that could pass in a newly GOP-controlled House.

The talks last Congress focused on writing compromise legislation curbing law enforcement agencies’ use of force and making them more accountable for abuses. But negotiations stalled over Democrats’ demands to make individual police officers accused of abuses liable for civil penalties.

Black Caucus members went to the White House last week for a three-hour meeting with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris and left with an agreement on the path forward both legislatively and through executive action.

On Tuesday night, Biden called for Congress to continue that work by passing legislation that gives law enforcement more resources to reduce violent crime and gun crime and invest in more community intervention programs.

“Let’s commit ourselves to make the words of Tyre’s mother come true: Something good must come from this,” Biden said in his speech. “All of us in this chamber, we need to rise to this moment.”

Meanwhile, advocates have been urging the White House to be more clear about what has historically held up progress on police reform, even when Democrats controlled Congress.

Horsford and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., the two men leading negotiations in each chamber, said that this time around, Democrats cannot go forward on their own, but will need buy-in from Republicans and law enforcement groups to pass lasting, meaningful reform.


AP Congressional Correspondent Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.