The Memphis Black Police Experience: Detecting the Brutal Violation of a 29-Year-Old Black Man by an Officer-Chiral Officer
Editor’s Note: Sonia Pruitt is a retired Montgomery County, Maryland, police captain. She is the founder of The Black Police Experience, which promotes the education of the intersection of law enforcement and the Black community. She is also a professor of criminal justice at Howard University in Washington, DC, and at Montgomery College in Maryland. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. CNN has more opinion.
We need to change the culture. We have to hold people accountable. We have to let the legacy of Mr. Nichols be that there is going to be police reform not only here in Memphis but in this country.”
On January 7, officers pulled Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, from his car during a traffic stop and forced him to the ground, shouting threats before spraying him in the face with pepper spray. Questions remain as to why Nichols was stopped, with the Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis saying they have not been able to confirm claims that he had been driving recklessly.
The officers then milled around, with no one rendering aid in the critical minutes following the beating. It took an ambulance more than 20 minutes to arrive on the scene, and Nichols, who suffered “extensive bleeding caused by a severe beating,” according to preliminary results of an autopsy commissioned by attorneys for his family, died three days later.
Based on my 28 years of experience as a former police officer and captain, it was clear to me that the officers lacked supervision, showed little professional maturity and escalated a situation into what would eventually become a deadly encounter through gross negligence and a complete disregard for human life.
The damage is even more traumatic for the Black community, given that the five officers who were charged with murder, are all Black. Members of the Black community often expect Black officers to be their vanguard.
The association has an unusual stance. We have come to expect from police unions that they will help shield officers accused of cheating from accountability, so when it comes to the arrested officers, they didn’t even say they were doing a hard job that required them to make split-second decisions.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in 2020, efforts to push for reform have mostly been replaced by calls to address the fear of rising crime and hire more police officers. President Joe Biden proposed funding for 100,000 new police officers as part of his Safer America Plan and the omnibus appropriations bill included $324 million in funding to hire more police officers.
If police are only held to a few standards and practices, how can we accept that they are only responsible for a small group of bad apples? We need to know what is in the tree.
The federal policing bill that bears George Floyd’s name failed to pass in the Senate and efforts to end qualified immunity, a judicial doctrine that protects police officers from being held personally liable for violating a person’s rights, have not succeeded in Congress.
Training or local policies will not be sufficient for the prevention of these deaths. The transformation will look like dedication, through federal legislation addressing the use of no-knock warrants, duty to intervene, use of excessive force, and other dangerous policing issues, and placing strong political change-makers in office through voting.
The writer has 28 years of combined experience in law enforcement, not just as a captain, and this article was modified to reflect that.
Nichols’ death comes as many police departments in the US have been reeling from an exodus of officers due to resignations and retirements and scrambling to attract new recruits. The 2020 murder of George Floyd, which put policing under scrutiny and made it the target of protests and moves to decrease funding, is one of the many high-profile murders that have exacerbated the staffing crisis.
In his statement on Friday, President Joe Biden mentioned the failed legislation and many others, including the chairs of the Senate and House Judiciary Committees, acknowledge a potential role for federal legislation.
The Congressional Black Caucus is trying to get a meeting with Biden. The chairs of both the Senate and House want to start negotiations now to address police violence that disproportionately affects many of the communities they represent.
Gloria Sweet-Love, the Tennessee State Conference NAACP president, called on Congress during a Sunday evening news conference in Memphis. You are writing another Black man’s obituary if you failed to craft and pass bills to stop police brutality. You own the blood of Black America. So stand up and do something.”
The State of the Art: Rejuvenating a National Registry of Prominent Local Law Enforcement after Floyd’s Deadly Excess
The legislation was originally introduced in 2020 and again in 2021, and would establish a national registry of police conduct to stop them from moving to another jurisdiction.
It would ban racial and religious profiling by law enforcement at the federal, state and local levels, and it would overhaul qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that critics say shields law enforcement from accountability.
The fact sheet also states that the legislation would “save lives by banning chokeholds and no-knock warrants” and would mandate “deadly force be used only as a last resort.”
The Democratic and Republican senators spent several months trying to make a deal that could get the 60 votes needed for cloture in the Senate.
“It was clear at this negotiating table, in this moment, we were not making progress,” Booker told reporters in the spring of 2021. “In fact, recent back-and-forth with paper showed me that we were actually moving away from it. Negotiations were stopped. The work will continue.
With the legislation stuck, Biden signed a more limited executive order to overhaul policing on the second anniversary of Floyd’s death. It took several actions that can be applied to federal officers, including efforts to ban chokeholds, expand the use of body-worn cameras and restrict no-knock warrants, among other things.
The executive action lays out levers the federal government can use, like grants and technical assistance, to incentive local law enforcement to get on board, but the president cannot mandate that.
Even though Senate Democrats picked up a seat in the last election they are still short of the 60 votes necessary for an effort to succeed. That means any policing overhaul that can find meaningful support in Congress will likely be stripped of the kind of measures that protesters are calling for.
State officials realized the federal government can’t take on every case nationwide so they started investigations into local police departments.
The five former officers were charged with murder and kidnapping. One day later, officials released police body camera and street surveillance footage of the deadly encounter after a January 7 traffic stop.
Memphis: A Blueprint for Future Investigations of the Ferguson Police Department’s handling of the shooting of a black man killed by an unarmed black man
“They’ve learned from them and it shows in their response,” said Johnson, who helped restore order in Ferguson, Missouri, after the 2014 fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old unarmed Black man.
A year ago, Johnson said that there wouldn’t have been any noticeable changes to the Memphis Police Department’s handling of the death.
In Taylor’s case, an initial statement from police about the botched raid in which the 26-year-old was killed said there was no forced entry. The officers entered her home using a battering ram before shooting her. Minneapolis police said Floyd appeared to be in distress. It was shown in video that Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck.
After fatal police encounters, law enforcement and legal analysts point to Memphis as a new example of how to maintain trust in the community.
CNN legal analyst Joey Jackson said that we are in a new era of accountability due to the proliferation of police body cameras and cell phones. “The more we have these instances that are caught on camera, the more public is outraged, the more there is demand for accountability.”
The department said in a statement that officers were terminated for failing in their duties and excessive use of force.
Last Monday, officials showed Nichols’ family the video in which officers pummeled him like “a human piñata” – in the words of one of the family attorneys.
“The police department obviously learned something from … other high-profile cases when district attorneys were not transparent, when they did not act quickly,” said Areva Martin, an attorney and legal affairs commentator.
“They did the right thing in this case by convening a grand jury, investigating the case quickly, and then charging these officers, bringing them into custody.”
Memphis has swift criminal charges compared to other cities that have waited months or years in brutality cases, so the news conference was called a “blueprint for future cases.”
CNN political analyst Bakari Sellers said the swiftness of the charges reminded him of the case involving the April 2015 death of Walter Scott, who was fatally shot in the back after officers pulled him over for a broken brake light in South Carolina.
A murder charge against the former police officer was filed after he was arrested days after the shooting. The former officer’s 2016 state murder trial ended in a mistrial but Slager pleaded guilty to violation of civil rights by acting under the color of law in Scott’s killing. He was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison.
They waited until 7 p.m. Friday to publicly release the agonizing footage of Nichols’ fatal encounter with officers, allowing time for local politicians, activists and Nichols’ family to make pleas for calm in the community.
“The last thing you want to do is take a high tension event and then add that thing that’s going to increase tension … on a Friday night knowing that people don’t have to be at work in the morning and they have the whole weekend ahead of them,” said CNN law enforcement analyst John Miller.
The delay allowed authorities to demonstrate the wheels of justice are turning quickly. The extra time allowed officials to call for calm, unite the faith community in Memphis, and make sure the voices of the family and their lawyers were heard.
The Memphis and Arkansas Protests on Friday: Charged and Uncharged SCORPION Officers and their Use as a “Mirrors” Against the Memphis Police
The police departments in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Nashville, New York, and others have already put in place strategies to deal with protests.
“We’ve watched so many of these cases over the last several years,” Martin said. “And when (law enforcement authorities) come forward and when they’re transparent and they provide information to the community, we typically see a very peaceful response.”
Protesters took to the highways of Memphis and Arkansas on Friday after online videos blocked the road bridge that links the city to Arkansas. There were no arrests made.
Though paramedics arrived minutes after officers disengaged, Nichols appeared to be left multiple times on the pavement without assistance before an ambulance showed up.
The footage stunk law enforcement experts. President Joe Biden said that it was a painful reminder of the profound fear and trauma that Black and Brown Americans experience every single day.
The suit accuses the city of failing to prevent or address an alleged pattern of policing abuses by the SCORPION unit, which it claims operated like a “gang of vigilantes” without adequate training or supervision. Police declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing ongoing litigation.
The SCORPION unit will be abolished by Memphis police, saying that it is in the best interest of all.
The Memphis Police Beat the 29-year-old Tyre Nichols: An End to Abuses of Authority, and an Attorney for Mills Jr.
“All of this was preventable,” she told CNN Saturday. “You have officers who are young on the job, unsupervised out there doing what they do on a regular basis. This was not anything that they aren’t accustomed to doing.”
The Memphis City Council Chairman became emotional after watching the video and telling CNN that more needs to be done to deal with brutality cases.
Protesters once again took to the streets over the weekend to decry police brutality after the release of video depicting the violent Memphis police beating of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols, and more gatherings and vigils are planned for Sunday.
“All of these officers failed their oath,” Nichols’ family attorney Ben Crump told CNN’s Dana Bash on Sunday. “They failed their oath to protect and serve. Look at that video: Was anybody trying to protect and serve Tyre Nichols?”
In New York City, as well as Atlanta, Boston, Baltimore, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Portland, there were demonstrations that called for an end to abuses of authority.
The community needs to see it when white police officers commit crimes against citizens, but they also need to see it when it is black police officers.
The officers are expected to be in court on February 17.
The attorney for one of the officers indicted, Mills Jr., put out a statement Friday night saying that he didn’t cross lines “that others crossed” during the confrontation.
Memphis and Shelby County Sen. G.A. Hardaway and the Tennessee General Assembly are Working Together on Reforming the Law Enforcement Unit at the Lyman-Adams Complex
The city council chair said that disbanding the unit without giving new training would be putting lipstick on a pig.
A pair of Democratic state lawmakers said Saturday that they intend to file police reform legislation ahead of the Tennessee General Assembly’s Tuesday filing deadline.
The bills will seek to address mental health care for law enforcement officers, hiring, training, discipline practices and other topics, said Rep. G.A. Hardaway, who represents a portion of Memphis and Shelby County.
Towns said that the legislation isn’t partisan and should pass on both sides of the legislature.
If you look at the footage of Tyre Nichols, you’d have to do something to not see what happened to him. If a dog in the county was beaten like that, what would happen? Towns said.
He called on Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in policing Act, which was passed in the Democratic-controlled House but not the evenly split Senate.
Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee and said that the national police reform legislation was a good starting point.
“It’s the right starting point, and Sen. (Cory) Booker, chairman of the crime subcommittee, has been working on this for years. We need to sit down again to see if we can revive that project, but that alone isn’t enough. We need a national conversation about policing in a responsible, constitutional, and humane way,” he said.
Tyre, the son of a good boy and the father of his family, who died after being shot by law enforcement in Memphis, Tennessee
The 29-year-old was a father and also the baby of his family, the youngest of four children. He was a “good boy” who spent his Sundays doing laundry and getting ready for the week, his mother said.
The mother of Nichols raised more than $1 million through her gofundme. The donations will go towards the cost of Wells’ and her husband’s mental health services as well as their time off from their jobs, according to the page. It states that the memorial skate park will be built in honor of Tyre, who loved skating and sunsets.
We have been this way before, as a country, as Black and brown people. We keep hoping it doesn’t happen again — and then it does. It was clear that he was trying to get home to his parents after a traffic stop. He knew that getting home wasn’t guaranteed, along with the rest of us with brown skin.
We are members of Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope (MICAH) who share values of faith, hope, and community in standing up for the dignity of black and brown lives. We stand behind the family of Tyre and the people who loved him. Not one more person should go through this abuse and injustice – especially at the hands of those who say their mission is to protect and to serve.
Even though he no longer is with us, his story is not over. We know that Tyre Lives on as he continues to be a part of the fabric of our faith traditions.
Memphis was quiet before the video footage showing Tyre’s last moments was released. The quiet around us was tense and foggy. In 2015, Darrius Stewart was shot and killed and in the following year, the same man survived being shot. But this time was different. It felt heavier, ominous…and the eyes of the nation were on us.
The image of a battered man in the hospital bed was the first thing we saw when we saw the video. We were told by his family lawyers that he had been viciously attacked by law enforcement. We understood that his mother could barely watch the first minute of it. Without seeing, we knew.
Still, it seemed the city had entered a tense pause. Waiting to see: Would this time be different? Would this case of death-by-policing lead to any substantive accountability or any lasting change in law enforcement? Is it possible that there might be justice for Tyre, when there has not been justice for so many before him?
When the videos were released, they confirmed what we already knew: that it was time, again, to fight for our lives. That’s what we’ve continued to do in the days since.
The story of our work begins with that question. The police killing of Darrius Stewart led to the formation of a coalition that is now known as MICAH. A few years later, we formed a working group calling for greater transparency from the MPD. Today, MICAH continues to work alongside powerful activist organizations such as Decarcerate Memphis and Official Black Lives Matter Memphis for data transparency and with the Justice and Safety Alliance to turn public attention and voter engagement toward a new vision of public safety.
Online policies and procedures are posted as of 2020. The synopsis for the training gave us some information about the rot in the tree. New officers spend over 200 hours on firearms training alone, in their 880 hours of training. There are 123 hours spent on patrol procedures. By contrast, just 26 hours are spent on interpersonal communication, including just 10 hours on conflict resolution and de-escalation. If a budget is a moral document, then a training manual is a culture-creating document. And we can plainly see where MPD has placed its priorities.
We have also long called for Memphis’ Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB) to have subpoena power. It’s not uncommon for a body to make recommendations when police conduct is suspected, but it’s usually ignored by the MPD. An ordinance was recently proposed that would require reporting on what happens to CLERB recommendations received by MPD – as a step toward greater accountability from MPD and authority for CLERB.
As the Memphis Police Department struggles to recruit and hire qualified officers, and departments across the country struggle to fill shifts, the death of the 29-year-old Black man is an example of the problems that American law enforcement is facing.
“These are all lessons of history,” said Corey, the former NYPD chief. You have to make the profession appealing to a lot of people. It’s not that people have lost interest in policing. They do not see it as a viable occupation.
Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum said the killing raises questions about how those officers were trained and supervised.
“Over time you always want to look at the backgrounds of those officers – that will be important. The hiring process – that will be important,” he said. “In this case we don’t know enough yet.”
Haley was hired as an officer in January of 2021. He is a former correctional officer. His attorney has not respond to requests for comment.
According to the records, Martin joined the department in the year 2018: He will plead not guilty, according to his attorney, William Massey, who said: “No one out there that night intended for Tyre Nichols to die.”
Mills, 32, a former jailer in Mississippi and Tennessee, joined the department as a recruit in March 2017, the records show. His attorney described Mills as devastated and “remorseful”, and that he plans to plead not guilty.
A Memphis Police Officer: Training, Retraining, and What It Takes To Make You Think twice – Or Does It Really Matter if You’re a Police Officer?
“We train and we retrain these officers, just like specialized units around the country,” she said. “These officers working in specialized units, you always need to make sure that the supervision is there and present.”
Davis, speaking at a Memphis city council meeting Tuesday, said training was not an issue with the unit. Instead, she said, “egos” and a “wolf pack mentality” contributed to the killing.
Culture isn’t something that you can change overnight. You know, there is a saying in law enforcement that ‘culture eats policy for lunch.’ She said that they don’t want to just have good policies. “We want to ensure that we have the right people in place to ensure our culture is evolving.”
“The pandemic impacted recruiting and then George Floyd’s murder really was a moment in time that made prospective police applicants think twice – Is this a job for me?” He said that.
“And now, unfortunately, with the Tyre Nichols killing you simply compounded what was already arguably a challenging environment to hire a police officer.”
The Memphis Police Department is low on good cops: Why do some cops start acting like sergeants? A former Memphis police lieutenant and recruiter
The number of police officers on the Memphis Police Department has fallen over the last 18 months, according to the Memphis Data Hub website.
“It had gotten to the point that we were having sergeants as acting lieutenants,” said Alvin Davis, a former Memphis police lieutenant and recruiter who retired last year. Over a period of time, hundreds of people did it because there weren’t enough supervisors. So many people were running out the door.”
“Departments around the country … are offering between $25,000 and $30,000 signing bonuses,” Wexler said. “You’ve got a national shortage of applicants which has forced police departments to do unprecedented things like offering signing bonuses and, in some cases, modifying the standards for hiring.”
Greg Umbach an associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice said standards for new hires are related to the amount of bad behavior.
The number of cops who have a college degree is more important than the number of civilian complaints a department gets, according to research.
If the quality of supervision is not high, that is a sign that the Memphis Police Department is low on good officers.
“Any police sergeant watching that video, their first thought is, ‘My God, where was the supervision and why did they think this was okay,’” Umbach said.
“If you pepper-spray someone or you tase someone, you’re supposed to call a supervisor,” said Davis, who spent 22 years on the job. “That’s just policy. I can not say why they didn’t.
But, Davis said, the behavior of the former officers who beat Nichols did not entirely surprise him – given the curtailed training and standards, shortage of skilled supervisors and growing number of officers lured by monetary incentives and without the requisite experience being deployed on the city’s streets.
The standards kept going down to get people in. This is what you get when they throw money at people to lure them in.
The first thing that was asked of us was the money. They had to stay on the job for a while. Do I need a year to do it? Are there two years? Nobody is trying to make a career out of it. It was the money.”
“It’s not the job that it used to be, when you felt like you’re the ‘best in blue’ and you have your head up because you really feel like you accomplished something,” said Davis, referring to the Memphis Police Department’s longtime “Join the best in blue” recruitment campaign. “It’s not that kind of job anymore.”
A corruption scandal involving rogue officers in the Miami Police Department in the 1980’s resulted in 10% of the officers being suspended or fired. Twenty former police officers were convicted of various state and federal charges, including the use of their police powers to commit murder.
Eight years later, another report by the GOA, the investigative arm of Congress, examined drug-related police corruption and said “rapid recruitment initiatives” coupled with loosening education requirements and inadequate training and supervision “might have permitted the hiring of recruits who might not otherwise have been hired.”
He added, “What we ask of our cops is that they think like lawyers, speak like psychologists, and perform like athletes but we pay them as common laborers. A New York City starting officer makes $42,000 per year, and is expected to make about $20 an hour. It means that they could be making fifteen dollars an hour with no risk or stress at Mcdonald’s.