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Does more policing make Black communities safer? Rep. Summer Lee responds


This is the first State of the Union speech for some lawmakers. They include the freshman Republicans who gave their party a narrow majority in the House. And they include a progressive Democrat, Summer Lee of Pennsylvania. We first met her on this program in 2020, when she was a rising state lawmaker from an old Pittsburgh suburb.


SUMMER LEE: We don't get a lot of Black women running for office. We don't get a lot of progressive folks running for office in western Pennsylvania.

INSKEEP: We talked while sitting in the Civic Square of Braddock, Pa., which is part of her district. One of the Pittsburgh area's last steel mills is just down the street.


LEE: What we ran on in this area was education and how it's connected to health care and how health care is connected to environment and how your environment is connected to your schools and the way that your kids perform.

INSKEEP: That was 2020, when she was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention and supported Joe Biden but voted against the party platform. She found it too conservative for her blue-collar, very diverse district where she wanted to attract first-time voters. In 2023, Representative Lee is thinking of police reform after the beating death of Tyre Nichols by police in Memphis.

How far apart are you from the president on the subject of police reform, which I believe Black lawmakers discussed with the president just the other day.

LEE: So I was not - I wasn't a part of the discussions. I don't know what his or the administration statements have been around policing, but I can already imagine that if they are the same that they've been, I think we're probably quite far apart on that. And I think that that is the difference between lived experience. For me, when I think about policing and when I think about truly the urgent situation, policing for me is a systemic issue. So the conversation has to shift. Even when we talk about good apples versus bad apples, that distracts us from a conversation about the institution itself, about the policies that support the institution or that bolster the institution and some of their practices.

INSKEEP: When you talk about systemic issues, the death of Tyre Nichols makes me think about a particular part of the system, and it's this. Memphis, where that killing happened, is a majority-Black city where the mayor and the city council name and confirm the police chief. There was a Black police chief in Memphis, and apparently, there was genuine public concern in this majority-Black city about crime. People wanted something more done about crime. And the SCORPION unit, which ended up targeting Tyre Nichols, came out of that. What does it make you think about, that, apparently, the democratic process is what led to the unit that caused this man's death.

LEE: Certainly. When we think about systemic racial injustice and inequity, we have to realize that this isn't a Democrat versus a Republican Party, right? It's a deeply entrenched systemic issue that we have here. We actually need to be having a different conversation. When we think about what causes crime, we know that there is a correlation between poverty and crime - right? - not race and crime. It's poverty and crime. And we have to admit that we are falling short on solving our poverty issue. And there is inequity even within that. So when we think about Black communities, of course they want to be safe. That's very reasonable. Every community wants to be safe. The question is, does policing make us safer, yes or no? And the answer is more complicated than the conversation that we're having.

INSKEEP: So you're saying that Black communities are asking the right question and getting the wrong answer.

LEE: They're getting an incomplete answer.

INSKEEP: Getting an incomplete answer, meaning that police would be part of that answer, but there are so many other things that need to go into an anticrime strategy.

LEE: I think that the police should be the last answer. It should be the last resort.

INSKEEP: What do you want to do about this?

LEE: I think that, again, we have to expand the conversation. And, yes, we can also look at qualified immunity. We can also ensure that we have accountability and oversight of police departments. I think we can make sure that we are investing in over-militarization. But I think that those are short-term and not long-term goals.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you mentioned qualified immunity. Of course, for those who don't follow this every day, that is what police officers enjoy when they are operating in an official capacity. It becomes harder to prosecute them in many cases for abuses. And there was a bill before Congress, the George Floyd Act, which would change qualified immunity, but it has not become law. Vice President Harris, the other day at Tyre Nichols' funeral said the George Floyd Act was non-negotiable. Although it occurs to me - I mean, it's a divided Congress. Nothing is going to pass unless something is negotiated. What do you think about that?

LEE: Well, I think that's a priorities concern. I think that we have a Republican Party that - their own stated agenda is public safety. So I think that we then start from there. If your stated goal is public safety, then we have to ask, which communities do you intend to help become safer? If the answer is all communities, then I think that, of course, that would mean that it's not off the table. It should be up for a vote in our next session.

INSKEEP: Do you need to hear the president say something about policing in the State of the Union address this week?

LEE: I would certainly hope that he would do so. Every time this happens, we call it a tipping point. So keeping that in mind and recognizing that our expectations are low after what this has exposed about our system and - right? - about our crisis with policing, I think that it's a bare minimum.

INSKEEP: Representative Summer Lee, it's a pleasure talking with you again. Thanks so much.

LEE: Oh, thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.