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Tennessee Rep. Steve Cohen on Tyre Nichols killing

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Here in Memphis, we also had the chance to meet with Representative Steve Cohen, whose congressional district includes much of the city. I asked him if his constituents had ever spoken to him about similar incidents, even before the police killing of Tyre Nichols.

STEVE COHEN: Memphis Police Department has its problems, but they also have some good police. And the Memphis citizenry generally thinks that the police are necessary. I mean, there are some defund-the-police people on the streets, but the predominance of people think crime is a major issue. It's an issue in the Black community and the white community. We've got a lot of auto thefts. We've got a lot of murders. We had the very highly public murder of Eliza Fletcher, the kidnapping murder in September. And then this next week, we had a fellow go around the city and shoot seven people and maybe killed four or five - shooting on the highway. And the city was basically brought down. Everybody was told to shelter in place. That had never happened in Memphis before, and it was pretty unique to the country.

MARTIN: The major story here for a lot of people has been street crime. Street crime has affected people across the city in some very dramatic and troubling ways. There are those who argue that this focus on social justice, then - that law enforcement officers, in the wake of, really, since George Floyd, have been arguing that they're less effective because the city is so focused on social justice that they can't do their jobs. Is anybody saying that to you, and how do you respond to that?

COHEN: You know, my constituency includes the defund the police and the - you have to totally turn the system over, and the system can't save itself. I have those people. But the predominance of people that are a bit older, and are more likely to be victims of crime because they have property and they have homes and they're older, is not of that concern. I mean, they're concerned about social justice, for sure, but they're concerned about getting the crime level down.

MARTIN: How do you reconcile those things? I mean, the fear that some people have is, how could it be that the price of protecting some people's safety is to abuse other people, to abrogate the rights of other citizens?

COHEN: I don't think anybody thinks that it's - that you - need - can't have both. I think you can have both. In this situation, where the police take somebody who apparently was just a very fine human being - done nothing wrong - and then just - and killed him - that hasn't been something we've seen before in Memphis, although there have been shootings, as I say. There have been police shootings where I think people have been killed unjustly. You can do both things. You can be concerned about internal problems, which we are, and still fight carjackings and car thefts and robberies. And, I mean, there are two or three carjackings and/or car thefts every night - every night, and in my neighborhood. And there have been killings not too far from here.

So people are concerned about crime. It's a serious issue, and I'm concerned about it, too. And I've been working - trying to work with the city mayor and the police chief about helping them wherever I can in the federal government with advising them of grants that may be available, grants that might be for hiring police or for de-escalation training. And we need to avail ourselves of every grant that's out there. And the federal government needs to help us.

MARTIN: Congressman Steve Cohen, thank you so much for talking with us today.

COHEN: Good to be with NPR, always. Honored. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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