Opinion: Memphis, state reforms were no help to Nichols in police beating death

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert / RowVaughn Wells, mother of Tyre Nichols, who died after being beaten by Memphis police officers, weeps at a news conference in Memphis, on Friday, Jan. 27.
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert / RowVaughn Wells, mother of Tyre Nichols, who died after being beaten by Memphis police officers, weeps at a news conference in Memphis, on Friday, Jan. 27.

On Friday night, the world was able to witness what up until then only Memphis police and law enforcement officials had seen — the vicious beating three weeks ago of a Memphis man in custody by five officers, who have now been fired and charged.

The world witnessed violent kicks from policemen while the man, Tyre Nichols, was securely within grips of other officers. They could see unrestrained, repeated punches from officers while he was standing but under the control of other police. They could see him being pepper-sprayed by officers while on the ground. They could see baton strikes to the helpless victim. And they could hear his cries of "Mom" while the scuffling occurred.

The officers pulled Nichols, 29, over on suspicion of reckless driving. Even if there were more than met the eye at the time, what followed was inexcusable.

Nichols, after all, died from his injuries three days later.

Memphis police already have questioned the traffic stop.

"I'm going to be honest with you about the stop itself," Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn David told CNN on Friday. "... We've looked at cameras. We've looked at body worn cameras. Even if something occurred prior to this stop, we've been unable to substantiate it."

Following the beating death of George Floyd in 2020 at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, vows of police reforms were made and actions were taken across the country.

In Tennessee, a law detailing several reforms was passed unanimously in the state Senate and state House in 2021. It included a mandate that each law enforcement agency develop by Jan. 1, 2022, a policy about de-escalation.

Such a policy was to include, but was not limited to 1) Verbal de-escalation and the effective delivery of verbal instructions to prevent the need for physical use of force; 2) Application of reasonable and proportional use of force based upon the totality of the circumstances; 3) De-escalation in circumstances of decreased resistance or compliance by a subject; 4) Allowing a suspect time to submit to arrest before force is used, when possible; and 5) Tactical repositioning, requesting additional personnel, and other similar techniques to decrease the need for physical use of force.

"This bill is pretty much my Christmas wish list," state Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, said during the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee meeting in which the bill was considered. "This bill will go a long way toward reestablishing the trust factor between law enforcement and the citizens of the state of Tennessee."

Memphis, in fact, had ordered its police force to adopt some of the same reforms before the state did.

They weren't enough. At least three, if not more, of the five state de-escalation policy must-haves seemed to have been violated in the Nichols beating.

From the videos, it is difficult to know how many other officers were there at the exact time of the beating, but if others were present another portion of the 2021 state bill -- that of duty to intervene -- appears to have been violated.

That tenet requires a "law enforcement officer who directly observes or has knowledge of excessive use of force by another law enforcement officer in violation of state or federal law" to, "within the officer's score of training, knowledge, and authority, intervene when the officer has an opportunity and means to prevent the harm from occurring."

We like what Katie Ryan, chief of staff for Campaign Zero, a group of academics, policing experts and activists working to end police violence, said about the Memphis incident.

"Changing a rule doesn't change a behavior," she said. "The culture of a police department has to shift into actually implementing the policies, not just saying there's a rule in place."

Similarly, Van Turner, president of the Memphis NAACP and a former member of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, said, "We need to find ways to better implement policies and training which are already on the books."

State Rep. Hardaway, he of the "Christmas wish list," nevertheless was back after the Memphis incident, vowing to file more bills before today's deadline to deal with police reform. One would establish annual mental health evaluations for officers, another might suggest "random" mental health checkups, and a third could mandate a switch from de-escalation techniques to nonescalation ones. State Rep. John Ray Clemons, D-Nashville, said an additional bill could force officers to take implicit bias training.

We know the great majority of law enforcement agents do the right thing in most every situation.

And we admit we don't know how exactly to foster a police culture that emphasizes trust and respect, not violence.

But we have to keep trying. Criminals haven't put down their weapons or lost their will to break laws. There is more work to be done. The tragic death of Tyre Nichols -- for an alleged driving infraction -- should remind us of that every day.

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