Tyre Nichols and the reality of police reform in the United States

Over the past few weeks the public has learned about the death of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old unarmed African-American man, at the hands of five black Memphis police officers. The traffic stop, which led not only to the tasering and pepper-spraying of Nichols, but his brutal beating was recorded via police body and pole-mounted cameras. The officers were quickly suspended and an investigation into their actions took place. Now they are being charged with second degree murder.

Although police use of deadly force against unarmed African-Americans in the United States is nothing new, in the case of Nichols, this was one of the first times that video evidence was collected depicting not simply African-American police standing in the background, but the ones who actually beat up and seem to have killed the victim.

Predictably Nichols’ death sparked lots of news media attention, public protests, and is some quarters demands that Congress return to passing the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.

The act, that was relatively sweeping in nature, including limitations on “qualified immunity for officers, safeguards against racial profiling, and additional restrictions on police use of excessive force” was passed in Congress in 2021, but never made it to the Senate floor.

Now that the midterms are over, and the Republicans have a majority in Congress (while the Democrats have a slim majority in the Senate), the likelihood of the George Floyd Act being reintroduced in Congress is slim to none.

What options remain to change this state of affairs?

Keep in mind that policing in the United States is typically a local matter. Why? The majority of officers in this country work for counties and municipalities, and these jurisdictions have ultimate control over their employees.

So any changes in the way police are going to go about doing their job is most likely going to happen at the state and municipal/county level.

Will the killing of Mr. Nichols motivate jurisdictions other than Memphis and Tennessee to tighten up the way they go policing their citizens? Probably not.

On the other hand, we could see the city of Memphis and the Memphis Police Department (MPD) attempt to implement numerous changes in the leadership, structure and accountability process inside the MPD. (Already the Chief of police disbanded the controversial Scorpion Unit, to which the accused officers belong).

In the recent history of municipal/county policing numerous reforms have been proposed and many implemented to prevent, minimize, and control police use of excessive force. Thus at the very least some easy to implement reforms will be tinkered with in the way that police are hired, reviewed, and trained. The longer term and ultimately more impactful reforms (i.e., changes in the police culture that encourages an us versus them mentality) will be harder to implement and resisted.

Unfortunately it takes a tragedy like the death of Nichols, to implement reforms to police departments at the local level. Larger systemic changes in law enforcement will, however, most likely come when there are more widespread political changes at the national level, when the party in power (unlike the current Republicans) is willing to go beyond the talking points and rhetoric to make lasting changes.

Photo Credit:
A still from a released video recording of Tyre Nichols’s altercation with 4 out of the 5 police officers involved in his death
Memphis Police Department – WREG Memphis