Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee speaks during a press conference at Shelby Park in Eagle Pass, Texas, on Feb. 4, 2024.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee speaks during a press conference at Shelby Park in Eagle Pass, Texas, on Feb. 4, 2024. (Sergio Flores, AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

(Tribune News Service) — Last April, the Memphis City Council unanimously passed a law to curtail the number of driving infractions that would officially justify a police stop. The list is limited to a handful of so-called pretextual traffic stops for minor infractions such as a loose bumper or a broken brake light, which would no longer be grounds for pulling over a driver. The law was named for Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man who was beaten to death on Jan. 7, 2023, by five Memphis police officers after a traffic stop.

Last week, the Republican-controlled Tennessee legislature voted to overrule the elected representatives of Memphis, reversing the policy change. The legislation has been sent to Republican Gov. Bill Lee. Discussing the bill in February, Republican state Sen. Brent Taylor, whose district includes part of Memphis, characterized the law as a “knee-jerk reaction” to the Nichols killing. If the Tyre Nichols Driving Equality Act were allowed to stand, Taylor said, it would be only a matter of time before a “virtue-signaling” city council somewhere abolishes even more vital traffic laws. Besides, he said, “If you were to ask people, ‘How do police most often catch criminals?’ the number one answer on ‘Family Feud’ would be, ‘A traffic stop.’ ”

The folk wisdom of the television show “Family Feud,” at least as Taylor imagines it, is no doubt unassailable. But the pattern of Republican state officials overturning the acts of democratically elected local officials, and seizing local power, is growing ever more disconcerting.

As recent history confirms, democratic elections are not events that all Republicans believe they must respect. Last year, Republican legislators in Montana and Tennessee silenced or expelled lawmakers who were duly elected representatives of thousands of Americans. Conflicts over policing and prosecution have frequently inspired Republican backlash. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended two elected prosecutors in his state, both Democrats, whose policies he criticized. As one of the summarily fired prosecutors said last year, “That’s what elections are for.”

Yet the notion that Americans vote for candidates, and then judge them on the results they achieve in office, is increasingly under attack. Pennsylvania Republicans impeached the twice-elected district attorney of Philadelphia, flagrantly abusing a constitutional process in an unsuccessful effort to reverse the outcome of an election. (Republicans made no effort to commandeer the Philadelphia Police Department, which has struggled in recent years to identify and arrest suspects in shootings and murders.) Republicans in Mississippi decided to take control of a range of police and judicial duties in Jackson, the state’s largest city, where a majority of the residents are Black. The city, which has a Black mayor, is also mostly Democratic. Republican legislators in Missouri similarly muscled in on St. Louis.

Republican claims that the power grabs reflect a commitment to public safety are not credible. The Republican majority on the U.S. Supreme Court has forced cities to permit public gun carrying contrary to the desires of voters and local leaders, and squarely against the interests of public safety. Meanwhile, GOP leader Donald Trump continues to glorify criminals who attacked the U.S. Capitol and threatened the lives of elected representatives. The former president refers to Jan. 6 criminals collectively as political prisoners and “hostages.”

As Tennessee Sen. Taylor’s reference to “Family Feud” suggests, quality data is not a prerequisite in the rush to reverse democratic elections and the policy choices that flow from them. Some heinous criminals — Taylor mentioned terrorist Timothy McVeigh, for example — were caught or traced during traffic stops. Of course, the notorious “Son of Sam” murderer was traced in 1977 because of a New York City parking ticket. Does that mean that street parking restrictions shouldn’t be suspended on holidays?

Police pull over tens of thousands of motorists every day. Black motorists are stopped disproportionately. Determining how many and what kind of stops are necessary isn’t easy, but the harassment and sporadic police violence — and civilian deaths — that result provide strong incentives to find better policing methods.

The Tyre Nichols Driving Equality Act was based on a similar law implemented in Philadelphia in 2022. That law reclassified eight violations as secondary violations that should not trigger a traffic stop. In the eight months after the law was in place, a study showed that the total number of traffic stops for the targeted infractions, including for Black drivers, declined 54%.

It’s hard to gauge exactly what that means to the quality of life of Black drivers in Philadelphia. The Tennessee legislature has moved to ensure that Black drivers in Memphis never find out.

Francis Wilkinson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering U.S. politics and policy. Previously, he was executive editor for the Week and a writer for Rolling Stone. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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