Administration

Shocking killing renews tensions over police

A new and shocking police killing in a Minnesota suburb has renewed tensions over police violence with much of the country already on edge over the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with murdering George Floyd, a Black man.

Twenty-year-old Daunte Wright was killed Sunday in Brooklyn Center, Minn. - roughly 10 miles from downtown Minneapolis, where Chauvin is standing trial - at a traffic stop in a shooting caught on video.

The officer appeared to think she was pulling out her Taser and then shot and killed Wright, who had been stopped over expired license tags.

The latest instance of a Black man killed by police has stoked unrest in a city that has been bracing for a verdict in the Chauvin case for weeks.

People on Sunday night marched in protest to the Brooklyn Center Police Department, leading to a night of unrest that resulted in the Minnesota National Guard being mobilized.

As professional sports teams from Minnesota postponed games in Minneapolis and other cities and officials prepared for further demonstrations, President Biden urged the public to remain calm and allow for a full investigation to unfold into what took place in the death of Wright. But he acknowledged that it is the latest incident of police violence toward a Black man for a nation still reeling from the events of last summer.

"The fact is that we do know that the anger, pain and trauma that exists in the Black community in that environment is real, it's serious, and it's consequential," Biden told reporters in the Oval Office. "But it will not justify violence and/or looting. So the question is, how we, in an orderly way, make clear that they get down to a full-blown investigation to determine what the facts are."

The president was asked if he felt the nation was on a "razor's edge" given Wright's death coincides with the trial of Chauvin taking place just up the road. The trial has been the subject of constant media attention since it began roughly two weeks ago. Verdicts against police charged with murder for killing people in their communities are rare, but a number of police officers in Minneapolis have testified against Chauvin.

Chauvin's defense attorney Eric Nelson motioned to have the jury be sequestered in light of the nearby police killing, noting that at least one of the jurors is a resident of the suburb. Nelson argued that media coverage of the fatal traffic stop and ensuing unrest would influence the jury when coming to a verdict.

However, Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill denied the motion, explaining that the circumstances in Brooklyn Center weren't the same as the trial. 

Cahill added that the jury would be sequestered next week when closing arguments are expected.

Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon said Monday that the officer, who is still unnamed, meant to discharge her Taser instead of their firearm. 

Further adding to the national outrage over police violence, Caron Nazario, a Black and Latino Army officer, sued the Virginia police officers involved in a December traffic stop in which they are accused of pepper-spraying and drawing their guns on him.

Nazario's complaint cites the "disgusting nationwide trend of law enforcement officers, who ... engage in unprofessional, discourteous, racially biased, dangerous, and sometimes deadly abuses of authority."

The confluence of events has renewed the focus on whether the White House will put its weight behind policing reform. Biden pledged in his first 100 days in office to establish a national policing oversight commission in response to the police killings last year of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks, among others.

But that idea has been put on hold indefinitely, with administration officials saying they intend to instead focus their efforts on getting the George Floyd Policing Act passed in Congress and signed into law.

"We have been in very close contact over the course of several months ... with both civil rights activists, with law enforcement authorities and the law enforcement community about what would be most effective moving forward," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday.

"We have made a decision in coordination that the best path forward is to work to pass the George Floyd Policing Act," she added. "That has a great deal of the content, of the policy changes, of the necessary reforms we would all like to see in place. So that was a collective decision, and that's where our focus will be."

The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act - first introduced by Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) in June after Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police - passed the House mostly along party lines in March.

It has yet to make substantial progress in the Senate, but Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who introduced his own police reform bill after Floyd's killing, has signaled that he's open to negotiation on the bill.

Arguably the biggest roadblock for the Democratic bill gaining bipartisan support is the question of qualified immunity, a powerful legal principle that shields government officials like police officers from individual liability, except when constitutional rights are explicitly violated.

In addition to slashing qualified immunity, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act offers other sweeping changes to policing.

Racial profiling at every level of law enforcement would be prohibited; chokeholds, carotid holds and no-knock warrants would be banned at the federal level; qualified immunity for officers would be overhauled and a national police misconduct registry would be created so officers who were fired for such discretions could not be hired by another police department.

The bill would not technically mandate the prohibition of certain reforms such as chokeholds at a state and local level, although it would tie in the new federal standards as thresholds for police departments to meet if they wanted to continue receiving federal aid.

Police reform is a big legislative priority of the Congressional Black Caucus. Members of the influential caucus are set to meet with Biden on Tuesday.

When asked what topics would be discussed, Psaki said that the main focus would be the American Jobs Plan, Biden's sprawling infrastructure proposal.

"Real change is a priority for him," Psaki said of Biden's efforts on policing reform. "It is something he looks forward to continuing to discuss with members of Congress. He believes that there is a path forward, that this piece of legislation offers that path forward, and he certainly will use the power of his presidency to move it forward." 

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