Memphis, Tennessee, braces itself for potential unrest as video footage of a traffic stop with Memphis Police which led to the death of Tyre Nichols, is said to be released today. For almost two weeks, people across the country have voiced outrage in response to yet another Black man being killed at the hands of law enforcement. Those who have already viewed footage of the encounter have called it “disgusting,” and the Minneapolis police chief said that while watching the video people will “see acts that defy humanity.” Sadly, Tyre Nichols is among 139 other Black men killed by police since 2017. These deaths have resulted in subsequent calls for reform in law enforcement, including defunding the police.
Nichols’ death and the alleged brutality that he experienced at the hands of the five Black police officers involved only seem to add insult to injury for many and further fuel concerns about policing practices. Many also argue that the five officers being Black is evidence that glaring problems within law enforcement are not only racial but also systemic. However, perhaps, they are both racial and systemic.
Tyre Nichols — a 29-year-old Black man — died on January 10, three days after being arrested by officers of the Memphis Police Department (MPD). According to Memphis police, Nichols, who stood at 6-foot-3 inches, but weighed only 145 pounds, was initially pulled over for reckless driving on January 7 and allegedly ran from officers. The police department also reported that officers had two “confrontations” with Nichols after he complained of shortness of breath and was rushed to a hospital in Memphis, where he died three days later. According to the family attorneys Ben Crump and Antonio Romanucci, an independent autopsy was done by a forensic pathologist, which determined that Nichols died of “excessive bleeding caused by a severe beating.”
Since Nichols’s death and the release of his autopsy results, The United States Attorney’s Office, the FBI Memphis Field Office, and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice opened a civil rights investigation into Nichols’ arrest, death, and the actions of the five officers involved. All five officers have since been fired and formally charged with two counts of official misconduct, one count of official oppression, one count of second-degree murder, one count of aggravated assault, and two counts of aggravated kidnapping. Each of the five officers has since made bond as of January 27.
The kidnapping charge is connected to a Tennessee law unique to the state. “Kidnapping under Tennessee law is any confident of a person against their will which substantially interferes with their liberty,” Steve Mulroy, Shelby County District Attorney, said. “It is our contention that whatever the legality of the initial stop, at a certain point, Mr. Nichols was unlawfully detained by the police officers. It’s aggravated kidnapping under the law because it resulted in bodily injury and separately because the persons involved in the forcible detention that was unlawful possessed weapons at the time. So, there are two different counts of aggravated kidnapping based on that theory.”
News of Nichols’ death spread like wildfire, and the public instantly expressed outrage over his death at the hands of Memphis police. Continued conversations about police brutality and anti-Blackness, along with demands for police reform, quickly flooded social media. Some have shared observations that five Black police officers were charged with Nichols’ death – and rightfully so — faster than have white officers who have also killed Black citizens. None the less, many argue that the five officers who brutally beat Nichols to death being Black point to issues in law enforcement not only being centered around racism but also systemic problems that exist within training and law enforcement overall.
A recent data analysis reported that U.S. law enforcement killed at least 1,176 people in 2022, making 2022 the deadliest recorded year for police violence since 2013, when experts first started tracking these killings around the country. According to Mapping Police Violence, police killed an average of more than three people daily, or almost 100 people every month. It is important to note that the 2022 total might be a possible undercount and increase as additional cases are cataloged.
As alarming as the significant increase in deaths caused by police is, the cases in which these deaths occurred are equally as troubling. One might hope that using any form of extreme force would be a last resort for police, but sadly, the study released numbers that show that to be far from the case. Only 31% or 370 of 1,176 deaths involved a potentially serious situation, with an alleged violent crime. The remaining killings involved mental health and welfare checks, domestic disturbances, and even cases in which no offense was alleged.
Egregious racial disparities have also persisted among those killed by police. Despite only making up 13% of the U.S. population, Black people accounted for 24% of those killed last year by law enforcement. In fact, between 2013 to 2022, Black residents were three times more likely to be killed by U.S. police than white people. These disparities are especially glaring in cities such as Minneapolis, where police have killed Black residents at a rate 28 times higher than white residents, and Chicago, where the rate was 25 times higher than white residents.
Aside from conversations about racism within law enforcement being partly to blame for these alarming statistics, some people have challenged the perception that people have of law enforcement and the perception that some police officers might have of themselves. It is no secret that law enforcement’s aim is supposed to provide protection and safety to citizens. The motto of the Los Angeles Police Department is to “protect and serve.” However, many argue that at some point, this mission was abandoned and replaced with rhetoric that positions police as warriors going to battle against the very people they have been hired to protect.
For example, during the campaign for the “War on Drugs,” police were portrayed as foreign occupiers or soldiers stationed in communities where they waged a battle against the enemy – the residents of those communities. This has been especially true for cities with higher populations of Black and Latinx residents. While an argument can be made that part of police reform must include a change in perception – especially in how police view themselves and their perception of power to take another person’s life willfully, research repeatedly suggests that racism, discrimination, and implicit bias remain pervasive in policing. Some say that a major cause of biased policing is likely implicit biases that operate outside of conscious awareness and control yet influence behaviors.
Implicit biases (e.g., stereotypes linking Blacks with crime or with related traits like violence or hostility) influence judgments through processes of misattribution and disambiguation. The insidious nature of implicit bias rests in that people do not realize that they hold certain biases against other people until they are confronted with those biases, and people can hold certain biases against members of their own cultural groups (e.g., race, nationality, sexuality, religion). That said, supporters of various police reforms also point to research that suggests discriminatory police practices and ideologies are common within law enforcement and perpetuate stereotypes about Blacks.
Furthermore, these practices and ideologies are central to the law enforcement culture and are maintained implicitly and sometimes explicitly through formal training down to everyday water cooler conversations. Evidence of implicit bias being problematic in policing has been so pervasive that, over the years, various police agencies started hiring DEI professionals to provide implicit bias training for their officers. Yet, sadly, very little has changed. In fact, conditions have seemingly worsened, and some argue it is due to the deeply enmeshed indoctrination of racist and biased ideologies about Black people within law enforcement.
It is then not hard to believe that Black police officers can also internalize these biases even if they are about other Black people and, consequently, behave in violent and even deadly ways. Of course, not all police officers subscribe to or have internalized biased or racist beliefs about Blacks. However, many are concerned that the alarming numbers of killings and information around the causes of those killings and disproportionate numbers behind who is being killed are further evidence of a much larger issue within law enforcement that is costing Black men their lives.