Swift action by law enforcement in Memphis after the beating death of Tyre Nichols has been called a “blueprint” for handling such tragedies. But policing experts say other important lessons and themes have emerged, including for the NYPD.
Five police officers were fired and charged with second-degree murder even before the Jan. 27 release of videos showing cops flailing away at the 29-year-old Nichols. “We want to proclaim this as the blueprint going forward,” civil rights attorney Ben Crump said.
But the discourse since the tragedy has identified other takeaways – for the public, policymakers and police departments looking to avoid such police violence in the first place.
The killing of yet another unarmed Black person by police has focused new discussion about systemic racism in law enforcement; the use of dedicated or special police units (the Memphis cops were part of a special unit called Scorpion); long-running efforts to diversity police departments – so forces look like the communities they serve; and about police culture and how it can dictate conduct on the streets.
Here’s what some policing experts told Gothamist:
Tactics and training
“It was a series of bad tactical errors that were appalling,” said Greg Donaldson, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who has spent decades studying policing. “There was almost no training involved in a situation like this.”
Memphis’s Scorpion unit, like so many special police units, focused on high-crime neighborhoods. The city has been ranked one of the most violent in the nation in recent years, and experienced a record number of homicides in 2021, with 346 killings. It was in that climate that Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis announced a new, tougher approach to crime.
It was similar to the approach that had been favored in other cities, and which had also gained notoriety. A chorus of police experts after Nichols’ death have said these units require more scrutiny.
“The genesis of these kinds of police units, like Scorpion, like [the defunct Street Crime Unit] in New York, like Ramparts [in Los Angeles] – these have been in Miami, L.A., and they all the time go unsuitable,” stated Donaldson, who spent almost two years throughout the Nineteen Nineties embedded with police items in Brooklyn. “They’re born out of public fear of street crime, of escalating street crime, and the tacit message to the department is: stop it any way you can.”
In New York City, one long-retired iteration of a special detail was the Street Crime unit, whose motto was, “We own the night.” It racked up impressive arrest numbers and convictions as it worked to get illegal weapons off the streets. But its methods drew sharp scrutiny and complaints of racial profiling. The accusations exploded into view with the 1999 death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed immigrant from Guinea who was shot 41 times by police outside his home in the Bronx.
Some members of the unit – four were acquitted on charges of second-degree murder in Diallo’s death – wore t-shirts that bore a quote from Ernest Hemingway: “Certainly there is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never really care for anything else thereafter.”
The unit was disbanded in 2002.
In the aftermath of Nichols’ death, Mayor Eric Adams said such units – Neighborhood Safety Teams are charged with the same work in New York City today – aren’t to blame for criminal acts. “Units don’t create abuse,” Adams told CNN in an interview. “Abusive behavior creates abuse.”
Push for diversity
Although the killing of Nichols seemingly fell into a tragic pattern that had claimed the lives of George Floyd, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and other unarmed Black men killed by police, in Nichols’ case, the officers caught on camera, and subsequently charged with second-degree murder, were not white but Black.
Efforts to diversify police forces have been underway for decades, and were pushed as one solution to systemic racism in law enforcement, even at the highest levels of government. In 2015, President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing pushed diversity in its final report.
“Law enforcement agencies should strive to create a workforce that contains a broad range of diversity including race, gender, language, life experience, and cultural background to improve understanding and effectiveness in dealing with all communities.”
The push for police diversity and recognition of policing abuses was in part how Adams, an ex-cop, initially made his name. In 2005, as the president of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, then-Lt. Adams said the NYPD’s recruitment of Black officers had been limited “by design.”
“I can only point to those who would hold onto their stereotypes that Black men don’t make good police officers,” said Adams, according to Newsday.
At the time, just under 10% of officers in the NYPD were Black. Today that figure stands at 16%, in a city that is 23% Black.
Police culture overrides diversity
Law enforcement experts say Nichols’ death plainly indicates that making police forces resemble the communities they serve isn’t enough; the police culture also needs fixing.
“You become part of a police culture when you join a police force, and how that culture is allowed to develop and manifest itself in different ways can absolutely override race, gender, cultural backgrounds, anything like that,” said Chris Magnus, a senior adviser for public safety at the Policing Project at NYU, who previously served as the police chief in Tucson and Fargo.
According to Donaldson, officers encounter dangerous situations and have to prove they’re tough, and that they’ve got their fellow officers’ backs.
You become part of a police culture when you join a police force, and how that culture is allowed to develop and manifest itself in different ways can absolutely override race, gender, cultural backgrounds, anything like that.
“Say you’re tussling with a suspect and later on back in the precinct, everybody wants to know who did what: ‘Did you get a kick in? Did you get a punch in?’ If you didn’t, you’re considered to be — I won’t use the word, it starts with a P, but it means a punk, that you’re not part of the team,” Donaldson said.
The conditions create an “us versus them mentality,” said Magnus.
“You’re not going to entirely change that, but I think you can train officers in different ways that can help mitigate some of that.”
He pointed to an initiative known as Ethical Policing is Courage, or EPIC, which has been implemented in Baltimore and New Orleans, and which has resulted in fewer citizen complaints, higher levels of citizen satisfaction with police and greater job satisfaction among officers. The coursework trains officers to intervene when they see other officers making mistakes.
“EPIC encourages active participation in the conduct and well-being of our coworkers for the benefit of everyone in our department and our community,” reads the syllabus.
“The idea is that officers learn that they can help each other out,” said Magnus, “keep each other out of trouble, not wait until there’s a complaint lodged against somebody or until everybody’s put in a bad situation.”
Small signs of improvement
Max Markham, the vice president of Policy & Community Engagement at the Center for Policing Equity, said the indictment of the officers accused in the killing of Nichols, followed by the release of the videos, amounted to “relatively swift action” and may have helped quell public outrage. These actions, he argued, were likely prompted by the nationwide protests in 2020 after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the rise of Black Lives Matter.
“The amount of people who it’s impacting continues to grow,” Markham said.
At the same time, he noted, there had been too little in the way of policing reforms. Nichols’ death has renewed calls for action.
“Why haven’t more jurisdictions, police forces, policy makers, etcetera, made the necessary policy changes to prevent these kinds of killings from happening?” he asked.
He said American society needed to scale back the number of situations that involved police officers, such as mental health crises or substance abuse episodes.
And although law enforcement has grown more diverse, Markham said that as an African American he drew no satisfaction from the quick indictments of the five officers in Memphis.
“It hurts my heart that we’re gonna have maybe five more Black folks incarcerated,” Markham said. “I mean, that’s a cycle that now continues. We have too many Black folks in jail and too many Black folks who have been killed, and so it gives me no pleasure to see that cycle continue.”