Chin Hei Leung / SOPA Images

The Reforms That Failed to Save Tyre Nichols’ Life

Errol Louis

January 31, 2023

Four changes that were supposed to make a difference — but didn’t do nearly enough to change police training and culture.

Four changes that were supposed to make a difference — but didn’t do nearly enough to change police training and culture.

The intersection of East Raines and Ross Road in Memphis, the corner where Tyre Nichols was beaten to death by cops, is a short drive from Mason Temple, the church where, on a stormy night in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a thundering final sermon that included an eerie prediction of his own death, which happened the next evening at the nearby Lorraine Motel.

And like the King assassination, the Nichols killing has sparked demonstrations around the nation and raised critical questions about what comes next for America.  

Less than three years ago, the outrageous, videotaped killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked some of the largest demonstrations in the history of the United States and triggered a wave of criminal justice reforms, all of which failed to save Nichols' life. Here are four big changes that were supposed to make a difference and now must be called into question.

  1. Keep track of police killings. A generation after President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act into law in 1994, America has never fully and properly implemented an important, little-known provision of the law that requires the federal Justice Department to collect data on deaths caused by police and publish the results every year. But data collection from the nation’s 18,000 local law enforcement agencies is voluntary, expensive and spotty at best.  Two Democratic and two Republican administrations following the passage of the 1994 law, we have little official data on how often situations like the Nichols killing occur, or how they correlate with a department’s size, training protocols or other key metrics. The best data on police killings of unarmed Black men — something I have reported and commented on for the last 40 years — is still being pieced together by media, academic and research organizations. That makes the already-difficult task of detecting, deterring and preventing misconduct even more difficult.
  2. Hire and promote more Black cops. The arrest and indictments of the five Black cops most directly responsible for Nichols’ death — and their chilling indifference to the man dying in front of them — demonstrate the limits of efforts to lessen biased police by increasing the diversity of local departments. A decade ago, according to the Justice Department’s 2013 report on local police department policies and practices, 27% of full-time local cops — 130,000 men and women — were members of a minority group.  That’s an increase of 78,000 officers since 1987, a 150% jump.  In 1987, only 9% of police officers were Black. As of 2013, there were approximately 58,000 Black officers working in local police departments, up from 55,000 in 2007 (a 5% increase).  From one perspective, the diversity numbers look good. Black men make up only about 6% of the U.S. population, so making up 12% of local police departments means they are disproportionately represented. There’s more good news when we consider the number of Black occupants of the top law-enforcement positions in major cities. As of today, Black men and women hold the top spots of police departments in New York, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Durham, Baltimore, San Francisco — and Memphis itself.  But those numbers and high-profile appointments come with important caveats. For starters, the vast majority of police departments have little or no diversity: It’s easy to forget that nearly half of America's police departments are extremely small, with 10 or fewer officers. That means Black and Latino cops are entirely absent from most departments. The small size of most departments fosters an insular culture where problems like racial bias can fester.
  3. End the warrior-cop culture. The cops accused of killing Nichols were members of a special unit called SCORPION (Street Crimes Operations to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods) that has now been disbanded. This follows a pattern seen in other cities where elite strike forces conduct broad sweeps for drugs, weapons and/or gang activity, often using heavy-handed tactics that alienate law-abiding citizens.  In the 1990s, the NYPD’s Street Crimes Unit roamed the streets in plain clothes, jumping out of unmarked cars in search of illegal guns with the swaggering motto “We Own the Night.” The unit was disbanded after four cops shot and killed an immigrant named Amadou Diallo on the front steps of his home, firing 41 shots at the unarmed man. “This is a complicated problem that happens in police departments across the country. I ran into a similar situation in Boston, with something called Operation Rolling Thunder that I disbanded as soon as I came in,” former Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis said on CNN recently. “It was named after a military operation,” a bombing campaign from the Vietnam War. As journalist Radley Balko has documented at great length in “Rise of the Warrior Cop,” cops who see themselves as part of an army at war are more inclined to brutalize and dehumanize “the enemy” rather than protect and serve. 
  4. Use body-worn cameras. A 2016 survey of the 50 largest cities and the counties with more than 500,000 residents found that 95% were using a body-camera program or had plans to implement one. America is conducting a vast, real-time experiment in how, when and whether video surveillance of police operations makes cops less prone to resort to criminal violence.  I have long been skeptical about the benefits: A 2017 study of cops in Washington, D.C., found body cameras had little effect on 2,000 officers who wore them. And the crucial moments of many of the important cases of police misconduct — notably, the killings of Eric Garner, George Floyd and Walter Scott — came from third-party videos, not body-worn footage. 

We certainly ought to track police killings, as the law requires, and study official data for clues and correlations. We should diversify local departments and ensure they have an ethos of service, not violent war, from recruitment through hiring, training and promotion. And we should reach some conclusions about the national experiment with body-worn cameras. 

But above all, we need to investigate the kind of bias that allows cops, Black and white, to dehumanize and kill the people they are sworn to protect.