As his administration urges Congress to pass a civil rights bill aimed at nationwide police reform, Joe Biden is facing another national reckoning over police violence and the deaths of unarmed Black Americans in the wake of the killing of Daunte Wright, an unarmed 20-year-old Black man who was fatally shot during a traffic stop.
But after quietly abandoning plans for a White House-led national commission on police oversight, the president and administration officials are focusing efforts on the passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act – which could face stiff opposition from Republicans in the Senate, where Democrats hold a razor thin majority critical to Mr Biden’s legislative agenda.
On Tuesday, moments after meeting with the family of a US Capitol Police officer who was killed earlier this month, Mr Biden reflected on the “painful week” around him during an Oval Office summit with members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
He also lost a “good friend” in Alcee Hastings, the Florida congressman who died on 6 April.
Mr Biden said Mr Wright’s death – “a God awful shooting” in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota on Sunday – also came “in the midst of an ongoing trial for the killing of George Floyd” as the city relives his death and the painful year that followed, just 10 miles away in Minneapolis.
When asked on Tuesday for a response to US Rep Rashida Tlaib’s call for the abolition of “policing, incarceration, and militarisation” after Mr Wright’s killing, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said: “That’s not the president’s view.”
“The president’s view is that there are necessary outdated reforms that should be put in place, that there is accountability that needs to happen, that the loss of life is far too high, that these families are suffering around the country, that the Black community is exhausted from the ongoing threats they feel,” Ms Psaki said.
During a meeting on Black maternal health on Tuesday, Vice President Kamala Harris began her opening remarks by saying Mr Wright “should be alive today”.
“And to his family and loved ones, you must know that the president and I grieve with you as the nation grieves his loss, and we stand with you,” she said. “Our nation needs justice and healing, and law enforcement must be held to the highest standards of accountability. At the same time, we know that folks will keep dying if we don’t fully address racial injustice and inequities in our country, from implicit bias to broken systems.”
But the scope of those reforms – eyed as congressional Republicans and GOP state lawmakers accuse Democrats of “defunding” police – will largely depend on what happens in Congress.
The House of Representatives passed a version of the George Floyd bill last month without any Republican support on a vote of 220 to 212. A similar bill was passed in 2020 but languished in a then-GOP-controlled Senate.
The legislation would overhaul “qualified immunity” policies, change the threshold for permitting use of force, prohibit police chokeholds at the federal level, ban no-knock warrants in federal drug cases, and create a national registry of police misconduct cases under the auspices of the Justice Department, among other reforms. It does not “defund” police departments.
Lawmakers are mulling bipartisan compromise legislation in the Senate, where it will need 60 votes to pass. Democrats hold 50 seats.
Over the last several weeks, Ms Psaki has repeatedly been asked whether the administration intends to follow Mr Biden’s campaign plans for a national commission on police reform as it urges passage of the George Floyd bill.
But on Monday, Domestic Policy Council director Susan Rice said a commission would not be the “most effective way” to implement those reforms, based on “close, respectful consultation” with civil rights groups.
Ms Psaki said the “the best path forward” on police reform is through legislation, not a White House commission.
“We have been in very close contact over the course of several months – back to the transition – with both civil rights activists, with law enforcement authorities and the law enforcement community about what would be most effective moving forward,” she said on Monday.
The George Floyd bill “has a great deal of the content of the policy changes, of the necessary reforms that we would all like to see in place,” she said. “So that was a collective decision, and that’s where our focus will be.”
Asked before his meeting with Black lawmakers what the administration can do on police reform, Mr Biden said: “A lot.”
“We’re in the business, all of us meeting today, to deliver some real change,” he said earlier. “Every single aspect of our government including every agency has a primary focus on dealing with equity. It’s not a joke.”
He added that those directives don’t solely involve police.
“It’s about income, it’s about being able to earn a living, it’s about being able to be in a position where you have economic opportunity,” he said.