The death of Tyre Nichols presents a new and awful perspective on policing in America.
Here’s a Black guy in a car, unarmed, pulled over, pulled out of the car, and beaten to death by five other Black guys. The assailants are all Memphis Police Department officers; their boss, Police Chief Cerelyn Lewis, is Black, too. Some policy-makers think it helps if the cops look like the people they police: that still seems like a good idea, but apparently it’s not a cure-all.
As with so many of these incidents, the only corpse that resulted is Black. One possible moral of the story is that if you’re Black, there is no color of police officer that you can trust. It’s true that most cops don’t kill people, but this incident can’t possibly help with our nationwide policing problem that is, to a great extent, a racial problem. If Nichols had been a white guy wearing a suit and tie, would those cops have felt so uninhibited about beating him to death while their body-cams recorded them? I don’t think so.
Besides their race, the commonality that has been noted about Nichols’ five assailants is their lack of experience. The most senior among them in this supposedly elite squad had five years in. Were all five of them senseless thugs when MPD hired them, or was the hands-on homicide they committed– not in one ill-judged moment, but over a period of time– the result of the “training” they received on the job?
If they were all senseless thugs in the first place, that could be for one of two reasons:
- A lot of people are senseless thugs by the time you meet them. So, a random sample of five youngish men could easily turn out to be five senseless thugs.
I don’t find this particularly convincing. People aren’t angels, but this world would be even worse than it is if a random selection of youngish guys was likely to yield a quintet of murderous idiots. I don’t dispute that we might arrive at a situation like that eventually in some cinematically dystopian future, but I don’t think the common run of human beings are that depraved as yet. Do you?
- The sample wasn’t random. Whoever does the hiring for the Memphis Police Department was looking for thuggish guys, and thought they saw the potential for some real thuggery in these raw recruits.
In the name of good government and general sanity, I would like to dismiss this theory as well. It’s really ugly. It sounds like something out of a crappy TV show, and it’s pretty much the opposite of what a police force should select for, isn’t it? And yet, this thing happened. We can’t dismiss every possible explanation.
Maybe they weren’t senseless thugs in the first place. Maybe the behavior that resulted in Tyre’s death was itself the result of the training these guys got in their few years at the Memphis Police Department. If there is special training for the Scorpion unit that they were part of, maybe that’s where they learned to act like that.
This theory is, to some extent, unassailable. If their training had always emphasized the importance of being polite, of de-escalating any situation with an unarmed civilian, of honoring the constitutional rights of the people you work for (the public), this wouldn’t have happened. It is now the lot of Chief Lewis to tell us that the training is exactly like that, and that all five of these guys just somehow didn’t get the memo. It is our lot, as citizens, to wonder if that could possibly be true.
Law enforcement is a great career to retire from. Starting right out of high school, you can quit before you’re 50 and collect serious monthly income and free medical for (on the average) longer than you worked for in the first place. The aftermath of George Floyd’s murder did not make the work more attractive, and Covid made it more dangerous (the disease has been the leading cause of police fatalities every year since the pandemic began). Small wonder, then, that police retirements spiked 45% between 2020 and 2021. (This from PERF, the Police Executive Forum Report).
Officers with decades of experience are, per labor contracts negotiated with police unions, cops who don’t have to do it anymore if they don’t feel like it. The exodus is ongoing. Who will our new policemen and policewomen be? How will they be selected? How trained?
Eric Kuhn lives in Middletown.