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Tennessee poised to roll back Memphis police reforms passed after Tyre Nichols' death


The city of Memphis passed police reforms after the death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of local police last year, but those could be annulled if Tennessee's Republican governor signs a measure into law blocking such reforms. Marianna Bacallao from member station WPLN reports.

MARIANNA BACALLAO, BYLINE: Last year Rodney and RowVaughn Wells buried their son with the whole world watching. The death of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols at the hands of police last January sparked outrage. His sister, Keyana Dixon, spoke at his funeral alongside Vice President Kamala Harris.


KEYANA DIXON: I see the world showing him love and fighting for his justice, but all I want is my baby brother back.

BACALLAO: In the wake of Nichols' death, the Memphis City Council passed several ordinances aimed at reforming its police department. The Tyre Nichols Act eliminated pretextual traffic stops. That's when an officer pulls someone over for a minor violation like a broken taillight or expired tags.

ROWVAUGHN WELLS: When they stopped our son Tyre, they came up with all these different excuses as to why they stopped him. But as we all know, none of those excuses panned out.

BACALLAO: That's Nichols' mother, RowVaughn Wells. She and her husband traveled to Nashville earlier this month to urge lawmakers to vote against the measure that would undo the police reform named for their late son.

WELLS: What those people don't understand - these pretextual stops - all they doing are - is harassing us, the Black citizens of Memphis.

BACALLAO: But Nichols' parents weren't in the room when the Tennessee House advanced the law, which would stop local governments from passing anything that interferes with police stopping crime. The family says the bill's sponsor, Republican Representative John Gillespie of Memphis, told them the bill was being pushed to the following week.

WELLS: So basically, his word is no good to us.

BACALLAO: On the House floor, Democratic Representative Justin J. Pearson, also of Memphis, spoke against the bill and its timing.


JUSTIN J PEARSON: You saw the Wells family, spoke with them briefly, told them this bill wouldn't come up until probably next Thursday. But instead, you are here before us today on a bill that should be going back to committee, having lied to them.

BACALLAO: The bill's sponsor, Gillespie, denied Pearson's claims. He says that this measure will keep Tennessee communities safe.


JOHN GILLESPIE: I have constituents, I have neighbors, and I have members of the community that are begging for safer streets, and this will do exactly that.

BACALLAO: Democratic Senator London Lamar disagrees. After the bill passed out of the Senate, she told reporters that the legislature is sending a message that they condone police brutality.

LONDON LAMAR: What we did today will not stop crime. They are not helping find violent criminals any more than the laws we already have in place.

BACALLAO: As for the Nichols family, his mother, RowVaughn Wells, says that this legislation undoes the legacy of her son and puts Black Memphians at risk.

WELLS: Now, our son got pulled over for a pretextual stop, and he ended up murdered. So you tell us. Should we continue to keep having these pretextual stops? - because at the end of the day, my stop and your stop are two different stops.

BACALLAO: If it becomes law, the bill would take effect immediately and apply statewide. It comes as the Memphis Police Department is already under a federal civil rights investigation for Nichols' death. For NPR News, I'm Marianna Bacallao in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF EDDIE HENDERSON'S "INSIDE YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Marianna Bacallao