Tennessee lawmakers advance bill to undo Memphis’ traffic stop reforms after Tyre Nichols death

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Republican Tennessee House lawmakers on Thursday advanced a bill to undo the reforms to police traffic stops made by the city of Memphis in response to the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols by officers last January.

Republicans held the vote as Democrats accused Memphis Republican Rep. John Gillespie of being misleading about when the bill would come up again, resulting in Nichols’ parents not coming to the Capitol in Nashville on Thursday.

Gillespie called it a miscommunication. Nichols’ parents attended Monday when the bill was initially on the itinerary, but it was pushed back, as Gillespie spoke with them in the gallery.

Nichols’ death 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.

Five officers, who were also Black, were charged with federal civil rights violations 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.

Activists and Nichols’ family drummed up support for the city council last year to pass ordinance changes. One outlawed so-called pretextual traffic stops, including for minor violations such as a broken taillight.

An officer’s incident report said Nichols was stopped for driving into oncoming traffic. Police chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis has said there was no evidence Nichols was driving recklessly.

Local governments in Tennessee couldn’t have similar ordinances under the House-approved bill. The proposal says local governments can’t have laws prohibiting or limiting “traffic stops based on observation of or reasonable suspicion that the operator or a passenger in a vehicle has violated a local ordinance or state or federal law.” A broader Senate version is awaiting a floor vote.

Democratic Rep. Justin Pearson of Memphis said Gillespie lied to Nichols’ parents that the bill wouldn’t be heard that day.

“You saw the Wells family, spoke with them briefly, told them this bill wouldn’t come up until probably next Thursday,” Pearson said.

Gillespie, meanwhile, told reporters he offered to arrange a meeting during a conversation Tuesday with Nichols’ stepfather Rodney Wells and mother RowVaughn Wells. Gillespie said he “feels horrible that they feel this way, but I told them this bill was on the calendar today and that my intention was adding an amendment if I was allowed.”

“My heart goes out to that family. I have had multiple conversations with that family,” Gillespie told lawmakers. “However, I do not set the calendar here.”

In a news release, Nichols’ parents said Gillespie had told them Wednesday not to attend Thursday “because he did not plan to bring the bill to the floor.”

“The Memphis ordinances, which we view as part of Tyre’s legacy, were crafted with the goal of preventing future tragedies and fostering trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve,” Nichols’ family said in a news release.

The state bill “not only undermines these efforts, but also disregards the collective voice of the people who tirelessly advocated for change,” they said.

Gillespie said he brought the bill because people in his area are “begging for safer streets.” Another Republican supporter, Rep. Lowell Russell of Vonore, said the bill is a “no-brainer” and a “vote to back the blue.”

Former Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, whose term ended Dec. 31, said he did not enforce the traffic stop ordinance and others passed after Nichols’ death because he thought they were illegal. New Mayor Paul Young has said he would enforce them. Young is among those urging lawmakers to reject the state rollback bill.

Lawmakers and Memphis citizens have shown frustration with an increase in overall crime in 2023, which includes a city-record 398 homicides and a jump in auto burglaries to more than 14,000. Memphis City Council chair JB Smiley Jr. cited the statistics during a meeting about retaining Davis as police chief under Young.

Young and the council kept Davis as interim police chief. Davis has been under the spotlight during the crime increase and after Nichols’ death.

The Memphis-Shelby County Crime Commission reported that the overall crime rate increased by 7.2% in Memphis and 6% countywide last year compared with 2022. The last three months of 2023 saw the crime rate drop 6.4% in Memphis and 7.2% in the county compared with the last quarter of 2022, the commission said.

Law enforcement was “very proactive” in addressing car thefts, including handing out 10,000 free wheel locks and using an auto theft task force, commission president Bill Gibbons said in a news release.

In November, Republican Gov. Bill Lee announced that about 55 Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers, would come to Shelby County to patrol roads and highways.

Tensions on the House floor escalated during an unrelated scuffle Thursday. Democratic House Caucus Chairman John Ray Clemmons and Republican Rep. Scott Cepicky briefly had to be separated by other lawmakers. Cepicky had tripped up a resolution praising Nashville’s public schools. Clemmons said Cepicky then made derogatory comments to him about Nashville’s schools.