Tyre Nichols Beating Opens a Complex Conversation on Race and Policing

The killing of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man in Memphis, at the hands of police has prompted outrage and condemnation from racial justice activists, police reform advocates and law enforcement officials, including the chief of the Memphis Police Department, a Black woman who lobbied for policing changes in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

The fact that the five officers charged with Mr. Nichols’s murder are Black complicates the anguish. It has also brought into focus what many Black people have said is frequently lost in police brutality cases involving white officers and Black victims: that problems of race and policing are a function of an entrenched police culture of aggression and dehumanization of Black people more than of interpersonal racism. It is the system and the tactics that foster racism and violence, they say, rather than the specific racial identities of officers.

“It’s not racism driving this, it’s culturism,” Robert M. Sausedo, the head of a Los Angeles nonprofit formed after the Rodney King beating in 1991, said after watching the video of Mr. Nichols’s beating Friday night.

“It’s a culture in law enforcement where it’s OK to be aggressive to those they’re supposed to serve,” Mr. Sausedo said. But he also commended Los Angeles Police officials for their progress working with the community since the King beating.

Tyre Nichols, who died three days after he was pulled over by police, seen in 2018.Credit…Bryan Anderson, via Reuters

Videos released by the city of Memphis on Friday evening, including police body camera footage and shots from a pole-mounted police camera, show Mr. Nichols crying out for his mother while officers hold him down, kick him in the head and punch him.

“We have to talk about this institutionalized police culture that has this unwritten law, you can engage in excessive use of force against Black and brown people,” Ben Crump, the lawyer for Tyre Nichols’s family, said in a television interview.

Many urban police departments have been pushing to diversify their ranks, a strategy policing experts still support as one way to improve practices and law enforcement’s relationship with minority communities.

James Forman Jr., who has studied and written on race and law enforcement, said that asking why the race of the officers did not prevent them from violence against Mr. Nichols loses sight of the systemic forces at work.

“Blackness doesn’t shield you from all of the forces that make police violence possible,” Mr. Forman said. “What are the theories of policing and styles of policing, the training that police receive? All of those dynamics that propel violence and brutality are more powerful than the race of the officer.”

Amber Sherman, an activist and organizer working with the Nichols family as they push for policy changes in the police, said that racism is a clear factor in policing when you look at who the victims of police violence are, not the race of the officers.

Officers of all races “are indoctrinated into a practice that sees Black people and brown people as less than,”Ms. Sherman said.

On social media, some people rejected the idea that racism was to blame, arguing that pointing to systemic policing robs individuals of agency and responsibility.

“Can’t people be bad people motivated by their lack of maturity, self-awareness and inability to discern? Does every incident involving police and black men have to revert back to being an issue in race?” Barrington Martin II, a former Democratic congressional candidate in Georgia, wrote on Twitter.

Conservative commentator Allie Beth Stuckey wrote on Twitter that “It is a warped worldview that can’t grapple with the fact that people of all races do bad things. Black police brutally beating a black man isn’t because of white supremacy, racism or a system. They did it because people have the capacity to do wrong.”

Others expressed disappointment that Black officers did not have more empathy as well as concern that the race of the officers would muddle the issue of entrenchedpolice violence against Black people.

“As an African American, it’s unfortunate that because the officers are Black, people are going to say violence against Blacks is not racially motivated,” said Joel Kellum, 57, a public school teacher in New York City.

“Black cops will do that to Black perps, too,” Mr. Kellum added. “It’s complicated and it’s sad.”

Police reform advocates have long argued that departments should more accurately reflect the demographics of the communities they police as a way to improve policing and help build trust in those communities. In Memphis, 65 percent of the population is Black, and so is 58 percent of its police force.

A screenshot from video released by the city of Memphis shows police officers talking after the attack on Tyre Nichols.Credit…City of Memphis, via Associated Press

“We have a very simplistic way of approaching the problem of policing and believing that representation is some kind of silver bullet,” said Professor Jody Armour, a University of Southern California law professor who studies racial justice. “It’s not just a Black and white issue, but a Black and blue one. And when you put on that blue uniform, it often becomes the primary identity that drowns out any other identities that might compete with it.”

Mr. Armour said the Memphis incident shows that it is a “fairy tale” to think that adding more members of a marginalized group in the police will lead to more just and fairer treatment of members of that group.

D’Zhane Parker, of the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, one of the organizations associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, renewed a call to defund the police, releasing a statement that said the video of Mr. Nichols’s beating “affirms what we’ve known all along: Reform doesn’t work. Incremental progress is too slow. Diversifying a police department will not work.”

Patrick Yoes, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, a national law enforcement organization, called the reported failure of other officers to intervene in the fatal beating of Mr. Nichols “sickening,” adding: “The event as described to us does not constitute legitimate police work or a traffic stop gone wrong. This is a criminal assault under the pretext of law.”

Late Friday night, the group that represents Memphis police officers offered condolences to the Nichols family but did not specifically address the actions of the officers.

“The Memphis Police Association is committed to the administration of justice and never condones the mistreatment of any citizen nor any abuse of power,” a statement from the association read.

Many police reform activists say diversifying police forces, especially in leadership, has made a difference and remains a worthy goal. (Mr. Nichols himself once considered becoming a police officer as a way of changing policing from the inside, a friend said.)

The fact that Mr. Nichols was assaulted by Black officers “doesn’t mean that we should abandon what’s critical like diversifying police departments,” said Miriam Krinsky, a former prosecutor who is now executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution. “Individuals who come from communities that are most policed and at times over policed have a right to expect that those who we charge to keep them safe and build their trust come from, and have a connection to, those communities.”

Still Ms. Krinsky acknowledged that police reform has to go beyond diversity. “Because if we hire the right people, but then the culture of the organization, and how they’re trained, and the tone and values that are modeled aren’t the right ones — just having the right people alone isn’t going to be a solution to some of the concerns about police behavior.”

For some Black police reform advocates, the fact that the officers involved are Black has been especially wrenching.

“We have to talk about this institutionalized police culture that has this unwritten law, you can engage in excessive use of force against Black and brown people,” said Ben Crump, center, the lawyer for Tyre Nichols’s family.Credit…Desiree Rios/The New York Times

“I think it is really hard to stomach as a Black person when you see everyone involved in the situation is Black,” said Max Markham, of Center for Policing Equity, a group that addresses racial disparities in policing. “Not that it would make you feel better if they were white,” he added.

He is glad the officers were charged swiftly but is disheartened that they may add to the number of incarcerated Black men.

“We have so many Black folks in jail. We have too many Black folks who have been killed,” Mr. Markham said.

Even the speed with which the five officers were charged has elicited complex reactions of both applause and concern that white officers have been treated differently under similar circumstances.

“Let’s be honest, let’s think about this — this is not the first time we saw police officers committing crimes and engaging in excessive, brutal force against Black people in America who are unarmed, but we have never seen swift justice like this,” Mr. Crump, the Nichols family attorney, said.

“We have to make the point exceedingly clear: We now have a blueprint, America, and we won’t accept less going forward in the future,” he said. “We won’t have Black officers treated differently than white officers. We want equal justice under the law.”

Memphis police chief Cerelyn Davis’s decision to fire the five officers within two weeks and quickly release videos represents a strategic change in the police response to such incidents. Chief Davis has described the officers’ actions as “horrific, alarming, disappointing” and “sad.” In the past, law enforcement leaders have waited months to pursue charges, if they did at all, and video footage was not always released to the public.

Black leadership is no guarantee that law enforcement will have credibility with the communities they serve. The former police chief of Minneapolis, Medaria Arradondo, who is Black, had criticized his own department over racism and vowed to change it, yet he presided over the department during the murder of George Floyd at the hands of his officers. He fired the officers but could not quell the outbreak of mass protests and the department’s deep rift with the community.

White officers historically “don’t get prosecuted as much” as Black officers, said Sarnie A. Randle Jr., a lawyer in Houston who has handled police abuse cases for decades. “Those are just the facts. Until we see all officers treated equally, I fear we’re going to be here for generations to come.”

Ms. Sherman, the activist working with the Nichols family, supports the prosecution of the officers. But, she says, it is also another way that she sees racism at work.

“At the end of the day, the city and the Police Department reminded them that they are Black men,” Ms. Sherman said, “and they will treat them less than, just like they treated Tyre, and make sure they fire them immediately and prosecute them.”

In downtown Memphis on Friday, Darell Johnson, a contractor, was using a drill to attach plywood to the windows of a loan agency building in case protests took a destructive turn, but by late Friday night they had ended peacefully. Mr. Johnson, 44, who is Black and has lived in Memphis for two decades, said that he was more focused on the tragedy of Mr. Nichols’s death than the fact that the five charged officers were Black.

“The color doesn’t matter,” Mr. Johnson said. “It’s just that you had officers taking a guy’s life.”

Robert Chiarito, Douglas Morino, Mitch Smith, Vik Jolly, Jessica Jaglois, Rick Rojas, Remy Tumin, Michael D. Regan, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs and Wesley Parnell contributed reporting.

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