No decent citizen could fail to be appalled by the video, released Friday, showing Memphis police officers beating a 29-year-old Black man, Tyre Nichols, so badly on Jan. 7 that he died three days later. No feeling citizen could fail to be moved by the anguish of his mother, RowVaughn Wells, as she eloquently described her grief at losing a young man, himself the father of a 4-year-old, who cried out for “mom” as he absorbed the assault. And no concerned citizen can fail to be impressed by, and appreciative of, the way in which those who justifiably protested Mr. Nichols’s death heeded — with sporadic exceptions — Ms. Wells’s call for nonviolence.
Yet no thinking citizen can fail to be frustrated that something like this could have happened less than three years after George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, triggering a national movement for police reform and social justice — or, for that matter, nearly 32 years after Los Angeles police officers delivered an eerily similar, though nonfatal, beating to Rodney King. How many more times will Americans, and their leaders in government and law enforcement, vow “never again” about such an incident, only to find ourselves ruefully saying, “Once again.”
Horrible as it was, there are encouraging aspects to this episode. The Memphis Police Department did not maintain the proverbial “blue wall” of silence, despite what appear to be initial efforts at a coverup by the five officers involved. Rather, chief Cerelyn Davis took her own skeptical look at the initial reports and fired the men 13 days later. She forthrightly denounced their conduct as “acts that defy humanity.” The Shelby County district attorney filed second-degree murder charges. And authorities added transparency by releasing video of the incident from police body cameras and other sources. Attorneys for Mr. Nichols’s family have declared that the city and county’s official response “gives us hope as we continue to push for justice for Tyre.”
Legal accountability for alleged police perpetrators is indeed necessary, to punish, to deter and to reinforce the principle that those who wear the badge are not above the law. The sobering reality, though, is that such retrospective justice is no panacea. If it were, guilty verdicts in Floyd’s case would have prevented what happened in Memphis. So would the convictions, in 1993, on federal civil rights charges, of two officers who beat Rodney King — albeit after a jury acquitted them the previous year, sparking six days of violent protest in L.A.
Further reforms are needed to reduce police impunity, including federal legislation to modify the “qualified immunity” doctrine, largely created by the Supreme Court, that often blocks lawsuits for unconstitutional abuses. Still, even many oft-proposed reforms — including some included in the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act — would not have prevented what happened to Mr. Nichols. The measure bans potentially deadly chokeholds, for example, but that appears to be one of the few forms of physical force the officers in Memphis did not visit upon Mr. Nichols’s body.
Indeed, Memphis, similar to other cities, had instituted reforms. One was the use of police body cameras to record encounters with citizens, which seemingly did not give the officers who beat Mr. Nichols much pause. Another was the recruitment of a force that reflects the city’s large Black majority. All five officers who assaulted Mr. Nichols were Black — as is the chief, Ms. Davis. Memphis hired her in 2021 after a career in Durham, N.C., during which she had embraced the protests over Floyd’s murder and decried “systemic racism” in U.S. policing.
The change Memphis and many other departments need is the kind that cannot come from laws and policies alone: cultural. Police officers — regardless of their race — too often regard young Black men as inherently suspect or dangerous. The savagery with which the police beat Mr. Nichols was unfathomable. But so was the f-bomb-laced disrespect with which they immediately approached him, based on what appears to have been at most a traffic violation, and then suddenly snatched him out of his car.
It bears repeating, even at a moment such as this: Most police officers do a difficult and necessary job with decency and professionalism; the country needs more like them. This is especially true in Memphis, where the level of violent crime is unacceptable: the city of 630,000 saw 302 homicides in 2022, or about 48 per 100,000 — about seven times the 2021 national homicide rate. The vast majority of victims in Memphis were Black.
As it happens, the city’s high 2022 rate reflected a 13 percent improvement over 2021, which the police department had attributed in part to work by the special unit to which the five officers who beat Mr. Nichols belonged — and which Memphis has now disbanded. But as the Editorial Board argued in the wake of Floyd’s death, an overreliance on police has prevented communities from imagining and investing in other public safety tools, starting with revitalizing neighborhoods that experience the most crime.
In the wake of Tyre Nichols’ death, the Memphis police have nothing to celebrate and much to improve. The same goes for the United States as a whole.
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