Death of the 'Driving Equality Act': TN legislature revokes local police reform measures to centralize law enforcement policies

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MEMPHIS, TN - The Tennessee Senate recently passed a significant piece of legislation that restricts the autonomy of local governments in implementing police reform measures. This bill, which received strong support from the GOP-led state legislature, was specifically designed to undo a police reform ordinance enacted by Memphis’ City Council.

This ordinance was established in response to the tragic death of Tyre Nichols, a black man who died in January 2023 after being severely beaten by Memphis police officers during a traffic stop.

The bill passed with a decisive 26-6 vote in the state Senate and was subsequently signed into law by Republican Governor Bill Lee.

The introduction of this legislation to the Senate floor was led by State Rep. John Gillespie (R), with State Sen. Brent Taylor (R) presenting a modified version of the bill to the Senate for consideration.

“My heart breaks for Tyre Nichols’ entire family,” Gillespie said in a statement. “They have lost a son, and they are in unimaginable pain. I have talked with them, and I hope to continue to keep an open dialogue. They were aware that this item would be on the calendar today. My No. 1 priority has always been to improve public safety and to make Memphis a safe city again.”

Supporters of the bill, such as Sen. Taylor, argued that the Memphis City Council's reform ordinance posed significant challenges for law enforcement.

They claimed that the ordinance could potentially empower "violent criminals" in Memphis and had led to confusion and uncertainty among local police officers regarding their duties and responsibilities.

Taylor emphasized that the primary objective of the bill was to provide unwavering support to law enforcement agencies and to ensure they could effectively maintain public safety without unnecessary restrictions.

On the opposing side, Democrats, including State Sen. London Lamar (D) and Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari (D), vehemently opposed the bill. They argued that the legislation was an "extreme overreach" by the state government.

Nichols died on January 10, 2023, due to blunt force trauma to the head during a confrontation with multiple police officers. His death was officially ruled a homicide, leading to the arrest and charging of five officers involved in the incident.

In response to the death, Memphis City Council took proactive measures by passing the Driving Equality Act. This legislation aimed to reduce allegedly "dangerous" traffic stops by prohibiting police from pulling over civilians for minor violations, such as broken taillights.

With the state legislature's bill now signed into law, these local reform measures, including the Driving Equality Act, will be effectively rolled back, reinstating previous policing practices and protocols.

Despite the concerns raised by opponents of the bill, supporters like Gillespie remained steadfast in their conviction. They argued that the legislation was crucial for enforcing existing state laws uniformly across all local governments in Tennessee.

Gillespie emphasized that no city or municipality should have the authority to compromise public safety or put law enforcement agencies in a position where they must selectively enforce laws based on local ordinances or regulations.

The signing of the bill into law by Governor Bill Lee represents a change in the approach to police reform measures in Tennessee. “We need to take the handcuffs off the police and put the handcuffs on the criminals where they belong,” State Sen. Brent Taylor said.

 
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