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Can Tyre Nichols’ Senseless Killing Finally Bring the Real Police Reforms We Need?

With more than 1,000 civilians being killed by cops every year, mayors and city councils can’t be equivocal about ending the warrior approach to policing.

Surveillance camera image showing Tyre Nichols in the hands of police
An image from a Memphis police surveillance camera showing Tyre Nichols in the hands of police on Jan. 7. Nichols died three days later after being beaten and pepper sprayed by officers. (Memphis Police Department)
It’s been nearly a month since five members of the now-disbanded unit called SCORPION, an elite squad within the Memphis Police Department, beat 29-year-old Tyre Nichols so severely that he died from his injuries a few days later. The officers have been fired and charged with murder; others have been disciplined and may face charges as well. The fact that this happened a few years after protests; debates about defunding the police; and the appalling deaths of Michael Brown, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others proves how strong the underlying philosophy of police officers as “warriors” is still ingrained in their training, practices and attitudes.

In the aftermath of those deaths and protests, public officials had the opportunity and public support to make radical reforms within policing. But after a couple years of instituting superficial changes, they opted to do otherwise. In fact, most cities increased their police budgets, even though there have been more than 1,000 killings of civilians by police each year before and since Floyd’s death, according to Campaign Zero, a research organization that advocates data-driven policy solutions to end this violence.

When I was a young man, I was often stopped by the police for reasons unbeknown to me. One time I was driving my girlfriend’s parents’ family car (not exactly what a 22-year-old sported around in back then, but I had done nothing wrong). Each time the police stopped me, they unstrapped their holsters for easy access to their weapons, creating a more intense situation. I can remember each stop as if it happened yesterday. The anxiety from those incidents remains with me today whenever a police officer is behind me on the road.

One other stop will always be seared in my mind. The year was 1990. Two Black female cops spied a late-model Mercedes-Benz moving west on Simpson Street in Atlanta around 8 p.m. They followed the car to the next traffic signal, turned on their blue lights and ordered the driver of the Mercedes to pull over. The person driving asked the officers, “Why are you stopping me?” “You just ran the red light,” one cop snapped. The driver said, “You’ve been following me for a block. Do you think I would be so stupid as to run a red light with you on my tail?” Pressed on the matter, the officer told the driver, “You must have anticipated the light changing” and pulled into the intersection before the light turned green, which was of course totally fabricated.

If you haven’t guessed by now, the individual driving the Mercedes was my wife. She stood 5-foot-1, was six months pregnant, and wore a close-cut Afro hairstyle and a baseball cap. She might have been mistaken to be a teenager who had stolen a car and was taking it on a joyride. That is, if she was being racially profiled.

To cut to the chase, I intervened respectfully, letting the officers know I was a City Council member. As per direction from the police chief, I requested that they have their supervisor come to the scene. We waited about 45 minutes for the Black male supervisor to arrive. The matter got resolved, and no citation was issued.

But it is easy to see that this situation could have devolved into something violent and ugly were it not for my presence and the fact that I was a public official. Despite the many differences between my wife’s stop and that of Nichols, there were similarities. One is that in both cases, the majority of those involved were African Americans, including the officers on the scene and their police chiefs. Both incidents involved traffic stops where no apparent crime had been committed. Black police officers treated Black residents disrespectfully, and in the case of Nichols, the incident tragically and senselessly ended in a loss of life.

Of all police officers, why would African American cops — who themselves could have been victimized by police if no one knew who they were and they were not in uniform — have so little empathy for a fellow human being and such disrespect for their oaths of office?

The simplest answer is that, just like other cops, Black officers are indoctrinated in the warrior approach to policing. When you consider the power of that aggressive philosophy in the context of a tense situation — often escalated by the police themselves — you get body slams, obscenities hurled like Frisbees, brutal beatdowns and, far too often, deaths. Sometimes the Black officers are even more aggressive because they feel that Black residents don’t defer to them as they would with white officers.

As much as indoctrination and psychology play a role, the biggest problem is that public officials have failed to communicate concretely and consistently that systemic change of policing is non-negotiable. Mayors and city councils can’t be equivocal about this. They must put their monies where their mouths are. Yet after slightly reducing their police budgets in the immediate aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, most of them returned to priority funding of their police departments.

On the national level, after the House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in 2021, strictly along partisan lines, the Senate failed to consider the legislation. With the police unions and other law enforcement organizations opposing the bill, police officers today feel relatively sure that they won’t be affected by any of its provisions, such as limitations on qualified immunity and restrictions on the use of no-knock warrants, choke holds and carotid holds, anytime soon.

President Biden’s contradictory and inconsistent messaging on police reform also gives officers the impression that he is not serious about change. To be sure, he is trying to carve out a middle ground and combat the negative effects of the much-maligned “defund the police” slogan. But by doing so, he is signaling to law enforcement that he supports the status quo, with just a few superficial changes being made along the edges, such as giving police better training and expecting them to treat civilians respectfully.

I believe the system is outdated and fractured beyond repair. We need a new model for the 21st century. I recommend that public officials start with these suggestions:

First, they should read the final report of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and The End of Policing, a book whose author, Alex S. Vitale, has studied these issues for three decades. Even if they don’t agree with all of the report’s or Vitale’s recommendations, it is important that they understand their logic and arguments absent the noise of right-wing commentators and partisan politicians.

Then, in addition to listening to their police chiefs and other law enforcement administrators from within their governments, I recommend that local officials form “kitchen cabinets” of scholars and practitioners who don’t work for them to help identify best policing practices. An outside lens can be enormously helpful because sometimes the public safety leadership and staff are too insular and too close to a problem to see an obvious solution.

Finally, we know that fighting crime takes more than investing in policing. Job training, education, recreation, mental health and other programs and public services reduce crime as well. Local governments must make better use of data to determine what level of public safety funding is needed, what characteristics to look for when recruiting officers, and how best to deploy personnel and technology to yield the best returns.

Mayors and other local officials have their hands full dealing with myriad problems in addition to police reform. It is time for the public to stop pressuring them to act in the most politically expedient way by merely hiring more police officers. With violent crime still surging and the number of police killings of civilians showing no sign of slowing, we need real solutions.

We need officers who are truly committed to the “serve and protect” philosophy of policing rather than the warrior approach. The public expects mayors and the men and women in blue to demonstrate that Black lives indeed do matter by stopping the killing of our children, our fathers — our fellow human beings. We can’t wait any longer.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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