Who isn’t appalled by what they saw in the video recording of Tyre Nichols being brutally assaulted in Memphis, Tennessee? The young man says, “I’m just trying to go home” to his parents’ house a mere 100 yards away. He didn’t go home. He died three days later. The death and its aftermath weren’t exactly a repeat of George Floyd’s cruel killing in Minneapolis in the beginning of the pandemic or a repeat of the brutal assault on Rodney King in Los Angeles thirty years earlier.
The incidents have happened in different cities at different times. The constant is this: A Black man was brutally beaten. The man posed little or no danger and was not armed. Those assaulting were armed police officers who are paid to help and protect people. While all abuse is terrible, abuse by law enforcement officers is extraordinary and should affect our collective conscience. We, the citizens, pay them, and at our direct or indirect insistence, instructions are given for those who supposedly enforce the law to protect us. We cannot stand by and pretend our law enforcement is color blind as innocent people are repeatedly assaulted.
Video recordings are why the cases of Nichols and Floyd have risen to attract national attention and the abusers have been held somewhat accountable. It is clear these cases are a tiny fragment of many cases of brutality across the country that go unseen. Unlike the case of George Floyd, where the initial video came from an onlooker and shocked the nation instantaneously, video recordings of the beatings of Nichols were released by the Memphis police department after the officers had already been charged and relieved of their duties. Two of the officers had their body cameras turned on. State laws vary on body cameras but the public interest in their usage is obvious. Unlike Tennessee, some states preclude police body camera footage from being released to the public. We need minimum, national standards for policing conduct including camera use.
A second observation concerns a problem that simultaneously suggests a solution. A stop of an unarmed man brought together four policemen in the case of George Floyd and five for Nichols. Why were so many officers in attendance for the minor incident? One reason is that relative to the number of incidents at the locations in Minneapolis and Memphis, the number of officers is too many. No one is being served by hiring even more officers in the name of fighting crime.
What is worse, having more than necessary officers does not help. It hurts and kills! Normal humans can be cruel when in groups and when they have power. In the cases of George Floyd and Tyre Nichols, one question is what makes an officer become a brute initially? We don’t know. Possibilities include a feeling of being slighted at the moment, a long-held grievance about some people, bias about an area, or racism. Once police are in a group, earning the respect of peers, such as by demonstrating an ability to act inhumanely (apparently, a trait for which officer Chauvin who kneed on George Floyd was known) becomes a factor. Why don’t the other officers step in to deescalate? Because it is easier to belong in a group by supporting the ongoing unreasonable actions than by intervening and correcting, when the offender is a friend or an officer of higher standing. Perhaps, we need fewer, better qualified officers with proper temperament and plenty of training in maintaining that temperament. Disbanding of the offending Memphis police unit is a step in this direction.
Tyre Nichols was a dad and a son. He didn’t have to die. It is unfortunate that Black History Month has to begin on this note but it doesn’t have to end this way. Maybe we and our elected officials have seen enough to be convinced that it is the quality of policing that needs to improve and not the quantity! Not just here in America but across the world.
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