Tennessee Gov. Lee Signs Bill to Undo Traffic Stop Reforms in Memphis After Tire Nichols Death

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By journalsofus.com

FILE PHOTO: The parents of Tire Nichols, Rodney Wells and Row Vaughn react during the National Action Network National Convention in New York, U.S., on April 12, 2023. Photo by Jeenah Moon/Reuters

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Thursday approved the repeal of traffic stop reforms made in Memphis after the fatal beating of Tire Nichols by agents in January 2023, despite pleas from Nichols’ parents to Republican lawmakers and the governor to give them a chance to reach a deal.

The Republican governor’s signature means the law immediately overrides some of Memphis’ ordinances, including one that prohibited so-called pretextual traffic stops, such as for a broken taillight and other minor infractions. Lee echoed the arguments of Republican lawmakers who argued that Nichols’ death should lead to accountability for officers who abuse power, not new limits on freedom. How authorities make traffic stops.

“I think the most important thing to remember is that we can provide enforcement tools, but we have to hold them to a standard of appropriate use of those tools, where there is appropriate interaction with the public,” Lee told journalists. Friday earlier this month of his decision to sign the bill. “That’s not what we understand has happened all along, and certainly his family would attest to that.”

READ MORE: In the years before Tire Nichols’ murder, Memphis police lowered the hiring bar

To date, Lee has never vetoed a bill since taking office nearly seven years ago, and has only occasionally allowed bills to become law without signing them to send a message of his concern or disapproval. He rarely opposes the wishes of his political party, and in particular is trying to push through a controversial universal school voucher bill that he needs Republican support to pass.

Nichols’ death last January sparked outrage and calls for reform at the national and local levels. Videos showed a flurry of blows with fists, feet and batons that lasted almost 3 minutes. on Nichols’ face, head, front and back, as the 29-year-old black man screamed for his mother a block from his home.

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

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

However, the white-majority Legislature has repeatedly rejected many Black leaders’ calls for police reforms and oversight, instead siding with advocates who do not want new limits on police authority.

In recent years, lawmakers have reacted similarly when they disagree with the way Democratic-voting Memphis and Nashville run their cities. They have preempted local power to undo progressive policies, assumed more authority over local boards and maintained a tough-line approach to crime in Memphis.

LOOK: Tire Nichols’ mother speaks out about lawsuit against Memphis and the officers who beat him

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

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

They also wrote a letter to Lee before he finally signed the bill.

“After our son’s death, you generously offered your support in our quest for 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 charges in state court. One pleaded guilty in federal court. The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating how Memphis Police Department officers use force and make 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 majority-black Memphis government. Some were also baffled that state Republicans were trying to undo changes made in reaction to Nichols’ death, even as federal authorities are still widely investigating policing and race in Memphis.

Associated Press writers Kimberlee Kruesi and Adrian Sainz contributed to this report.

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