Nearly three years after the death of George Floyd, here we are again — mourning and marching.
The death of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols, following a savage beating at the hands of Memphis police, has once again brought into our homes and our lives the horror that too often results from the everyday double standard Black men face at the hands of police. And so once again in communities across the nation people take to the streets demanding reform.
This nation is supposed to be better than this. And yet here we are again.
Memphis isn’t Minneapolis, where Floyd drew his last breaths in 2020 under the knee of the white, now convicted former police officer Derek Chauvin. The five Black officers involved in the beating of Nichols during a still unexplained traffic stop were swiftly dismissed from the force after Chief Cerelyn Davis reviewed the body camera footage that she would later release publicly — video that would shock the nation. Within days of their firing the men were also charged with second-degree murder. Two more officers were relieved of duty by late Monday.
But, still, a man is dead, his family grieves, and those who care about justice search for answers to increasingly urgent questions: How can cities grow and foster a police system that can protect and defend without devolving into some kind of warrior culture that feeds on the violence it is supposed to be defending against?
The death of Tyre Nichols has once again turned focus to the inability of Congress to set the kind of national standards that could be the backbone of police reform. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act passed the then Democratic-controlled House in 2020 and 2021 but never made it through the Senate — the biggest sticking point being proposed changes to “qualified immunity,” which has protected police officers from most civil lawsuits for the past several decades.
The bill would have banned chokeholds and no-knock warrants at the federal level and provided federal funds for communities that adopted such policies as well. It encouraged the use of body-worn cameras — again with federal funds. And it sought to create a national police misconduct database to prevent police who are fired or resign under a cloud from being hired by other law enforcement agencies.
And while the measure had bipartisan support in the Senate the last time around, the current dysfunction in the House, now under the Republicans’ whisker-thin majority, makes action on Capitol Hill a long shot at best.
But policing is at its heart a local function and some of its many woes may be best solved at the state and local level anyway.
Massachusetts passed a sweeping police reform bill in late 2020 in the wake of the George Floyd protests, finally joining most of the rest of the nation in setting up its own process for certifying — and most importantly for decertifying — police officers and for receiving and investigating citizen complaints. Not even halfway through the alphabet (of officers’ names) in the certification process, it has thus far suspended 15 officers. None have yet been decertified.
California adopted its police reform bill in late 2021, also with a decertification process.
Rooting out misbehaving cops, however, doesn’t change the culture that too often breeds and encourages them.
Memphis Chief Davis realized that belatedly when she disbanded the city’s 40-member Scorpion team that she created in November 2021. All five officers involved in the beating of Nichols were members of the team that was supposed to be focused on hot spots in the city.
The problem Memphis was trying to solve is real: For the past two years the city of some 630,000 people has averaged around 300 murders a year. By contrast, Boston, slightly larger at around 670,000, recorded around 40 murders for each of those years. But Memphis should not have been surprised when the “solution” turned out to have grave consequences. Similar elite units have a checkered history
“The evidence is overwhelming: Giving roving teams of police officers added authority, elite status, a long leash and a vague mandate is a formula for abuse,” wrote Radley Balko, the author of “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces,” in a recent New York Times op-ed.
He cited recent scandals involving elite police units in Baltimore, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Newark, and Milwaukee among other cities where the units have not merely proven violent and/or corrupt but counterproductive to effective policing.
Municipalities can also change the way they recruit police officers, incorporating more psychological screening to weed out applicants with authoritarian personality traits before they join the force and become virtually impossible to fire due to union protections.
Effective policing requires a level of trust between police and the community they serve. Recruiting, training, and encouraging officers who understand and believe that trust — rather than abuse and thuggery — is a critical element in public safety is the key to genuine police reform.
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