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Tennessee governor signs bill blocking police reform law inspired by Tyre Nichols’ killing

Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Lee has signed a bill into law that blocks cities from enacting some local police reforms, including a lauded Memphis traffic stop ordinance created after the fatal police beating of Tyre Nichols.

The Republican-controlled Tennessee legislature previously passed the bill, which bans any city from enacting any measure “that prohibits or limits the ability of a law enforcement agency to take all necessary steps that are lawful under state and federal law to fulfill the law enforcement agency’s duties to prevent and detect crime and apprehend criminal offenders.”

The bill was introduced in the Tennessee House about a year after Nichols’ January 2023 death. Although the law doesn’t specifically mention the Memphis traffic stop measure, it has been widely interpreted as a rebuke of the ordinance and would prevent cities across the state from implementing similar reforms.

The measure in Memphis, dubbed the “Driving Equality Act in Honor of Tyre Nichols,” prohibited police stops for minor infractions. The 2023 ordinance was passed by the Memphis City Council in the months after Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, was severely beaten by Memphis police during a traffic stop. He was hospitalized and died several days later from his injuries, which included tearing and rupturing in his brain and bruising and cuts all over his body.

The reform was supported by Nichols’ family as well as civil rights groups and activists, who have argued police stops for minor infractions – also called pretextual stops – unfairly target Black drivers and expose them to police violence.

Pretextual stops allow police to use minor traffic infractions or broken taillights as grounds to investigate motorists for more serious crimes. Police have defended those kinds of stops, saying they are crucial for fighting possession of illegal drugs, weapons possession, human trafficking and drunken driving.

Memphis Democratic Mayor Paul Young told CNN on Saturday that the city’s legal team is working to ensure city policies follow the new state law.

“I certainly wasn’t in support of that (new law),” Young told CNN. “The people of Memphis spoke loud and clear. Our City Council overwhelmingly passed, 13-0, those ordinances. So I think it’s important that local elected officials are able to dictate their path and future.”

Police originally said they stopped Nichols for reckless driving. But Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn J. Davis later said camera footage showed no evidence of probable cause for the traffic stop.

CNN has reached out to Lee’s office for comment.

Much of the discussion around the legislation has revolved around the traffic stop that led to Nichols’ brutal beating – and ultimately his death.

Earlier this month, Nichols’ parents pleaded with legislators to kill the bill, according to CNN affiliate WMC.

“The city of Memphis worked tirelessly to get ordinances passed in Tyre’s name, so this bill hurts us deeply,” Nichols’ parents RowVaughn and Rodney Wells said in a statement published by WMC. “Local Memphis leaders tried to speak with the state legislators pushing for this legislation, but they were brushed off –– as were we.”

State Sen. Brent Taylor, a Republican and a sponsor of the bill, described pretextual traffic stops as “an important law enforcement tool,” according to WMC.

“We have to have uniformity and consistency across the state when it comes to traffic enforcement,” he said.

Police traffic stops and their relationship to racial profiling and police violence have come under scrutiny across the country. A January report found Black drivers in California were stopped “more frequently than expected” by law enforcement, for instance.

Other states and cities have taken steps to eliminate pretextual stops, including Virginia and Philadelphia, which became the first major city to ban police from stopping drivers for low-level traffic violations in 2021. It followed in the footsteps of smaller cities like Minneapolis and Ramsey County, Minnesota.

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