The tragic death of Tyre Nichols, 29, allegedly at the hands of five Memphis police officers after he was pulled over for a routine traffic stop, is the latest devastation we face as a nation saddled with a system of toxic policing. This death stands out for its appalling brutality; as individuals, we are shocked, saddened, and disgusted in equal measure.
But police brutality and killings will not end until there are systemic solutions that address the culture of violence and abuse that breed these horrific acts.
There are four questions that need to be asked about this tragedy in order to work toward changing the culture of violence and abuse. They’re about restructuring police departments, holding officers responsible for abuses, removing unfit officers, and recruiting competent officers.
First, why were five officers deployed to a traffic stop such as the one involving Nichols? This kind of over-policing epitomizes a deep structural flaw in the delivery of public safety in most cities. Police recruits are taught that traffic stops are dangerous, which then becomes baked into the culture and into their response. In addition, the police carry guns. This is completely unnecessary.
In my former city of Ithaca, N.Y., where I served as mayor for 10 years, we voted to dismantle our traditional police force and replace it with a system in which unarmed personnel are first responders in nonemergency situations. Similarly, the city of Berkeley, Calif., is working toward a system of unarmed traffic enforcement. The intent, and effect, is to dramatically lower the temperature of traffic stop encounters — while preserving armed force for actual crises, including crimes in progress.
Second, what has been the process for holding dangerous or abusive officers responsible for their actions? The Memphis Police Department has faced numerous complaints of excessive force. And too often in cities across the country complaints are swept under the rug — often with the complicity of powerful police unions. Departments need a system of accountability that works. This includes using police contract negotiations as an opportunity to build in meaningful accountability protocols, eliminating qualified immunity, and fixing the problem of spotty and unreliable compliance with federal mandates to report deaths in police custody.
Third, how can unfit officers be removed from duty? At least one of the five officers involved in Nichols’s death was the subject of a previous complaint of another brutal beating. The case was dismissed on a technicality, and the officer remained on the force. There isn’t full clarity on what happened in that case, but it is ominous in light of what happened to Nichols.
Overall, police departments nationwide have a serious problem with removing abusive officers. Every state needs to have a process for decertifying officers who commit violent acts or are otherwise unfit. And states that have decertification need to avoid setting the bar too high for action; many states currently make decertification almost impossible by requiring a final criminal conviction before it can occur.
Finally, how can municipalities recruit better officers? It’s impossible to overemphasize the importance of prescreening, including intensive psychological screening, to weed out violent people and bullies in the police application process. I am on record in favor of polygraphs as part of the screening process. In Ithaca, our implementation of enhanced psychological screening weeded out 75 percent of candidates for the police force. The vast majority of complaints about police abuses in our community involved officers hired before the intensive screening went into practice.
Much has been made about the fact that this killing involved both Black officers and a Black victim. As a Black man myself, this is crushing. But this is about a poisoned culture in American policing. If the culture is bad, people recruited into it — regardless of race — will absorb and reflect that culture. And we can talk all we want about public safety strategy, but culture eats strategy for breakfast.
As a nation, we have to focus on changes that transform the culture, as outlined in the comprehensive report “All Safe: Transforming Public Safety” that my organization produced with a cadre of public safety experts. This will require serious work at the city level with community, faith, and public servants who have a deep commitment to justice and safety. Otherwise, nothing will change. And we will continue to mourn.
Svante Myrick is president of People For the American Way.