April 7, 2023
Unchangeable US police force is responsible for countless unjustified deadly arrests
Ohio Police brutality protest, January 30, 2023
To what extent is police brutality in the US an issue of a lack of training than of race?
That’s a question I asked myself after seeing the Tyre Nichols case unfold.
On January 7, Nichols, a 29 year-old Black man, was stopped at a traffic stop at an intersection in Memphis by five policemen claiming he had been driving recklessly. Something that Cererlyn J Davis, Memphis Police Chief, and her department were unable to substantiate after reviewing traffic footage. Nichols received a serious beating by the police and died in hospital three days later.
All footage of this assault was recorded by the officers’ body cameras and CCTV. The evidence, which was published by the Memphis Police Department, showed Nichols being ‘pulled over, yelled at, dragged from his car, pepper-sprayed, and beaten’ for nearly an hour.
One of the police officers threatened to break Nichols’ hands unless he put it behind his back, before telling him to get on the ground. All the while Nichols was compliant and said that he “didn’t do anything” and was “just trying to go home”.
After being tased for the first time by officer Preston Hemphill, Nichols escaped from other policemen holding him down on the ground and ran off for about 800 metres from the traffic stop, before being caught by the officers. They then proceeded to punch, kick him in the head, taser and pepper spray him while Nichols repeatedly cried out for his mum.
His deadly beating took place about 60 yards from his mum’s home. His mum and stepdad were waiting inside the house for Nichols to arrive home and greet him, but instead officers came that night to notify her that her son had been arrested for ‘reckless driving’ and was heading to the hospital.
The Memphis Police Department fired seven police officers less than two weeks after the incident for ‘excessive use of force, failure to intervene, and failure to render aid’. Five of the men directly involved in the beating: Demetrius Haley, Emmett Martin III, Justin Smith, Desmond Mills Jr and Tadarius Bean were charged with second degree murder but all pleaded not guilty at their first hearing on February 17.
DeWayne Smith, a Memphis police lieutenant on duty at the scene retired with benefits just one day before a hearing to fire him, according to Memphis City Council Vice Chairman JB Smiley, Jr.
The lieutenant was not wearing his body camera, violating one of the police department policies, but also failed to get Nichols medical care. Smith did not get any reports from the officers about them using force and then falsely reported to Nichols’ parents that he had been ‘driving under the influence’ despite no evidence supporting the charge.
Civil rights attorney Ben Crump, the lawyer representing the Nichols’ family, stated: “His cowardice in resigning and not facing his own disciplinary board to defend himself is not an end-around on accountability or reckoning."
Cases of police brutality are typically highlighted as a race issue. But the aspect of this case different to ones we have witnessed is that five out of six officers were also Black. But, even the President of the United States, Joe Biden, referred to it as a race issue.
In a statement at the State of the Union Address, he said: “It is yet another painful reminder of the profound fear and trauma, the pain, and the exhaustion that Black and Brown Americans experience every single day.”
Once again, an issue concerning reform in the system was avoided by being politicised as one of prejudice and discrimination. As highlighted by the District Attorney Steve Mulroy this case proves “cause for concern” about the overall policing culture and the need for police reform, not only in Memphis but across the whole country.
Policing in the US can be reflected in the words of Robert Hemphill, the father of Preston Hemphill, who said the officers were just “doing what they were trained to do”.He told the Daily Mail: “I agree, it looks bad, but those five officers at the end, they’re doing what they’re supposed to do, they’re doing what they were trained to do.”
Adding that Nichols “could have stopped it at any moment” had he rolled over onto his stomach. “But when you don’t roll over, what are you gonna do?” the officer’s father added in his exclusive to the Mail. “You can’t let him just get up and walk away. He could have had a gun. He could have been a kidnapper or molester, and that’s why he’s running.”
Mr Hemphill, however, failed to acknowledge the core of the issue of police brutality – excessive and unnecessary force. The irony is that the five of the policemen that brutally detained Nichols were part of the Scorpion Unit, which was dedicated to addressing violent crime and led investigations on car thefts and gangs.
Speaking on CBS News, MrCrump accused the specialist unit, known by the community as the “jump out boys”, of having a pattern and practice of using excessive force and violence, often with Black and Brown people bearing the brunt of this treatment the same way as seen with Nichols.
If this type of behaviour is encouraged in training, why should police officers behave otherwise in the field? In order to stop this cycle of repeated police brutality, the system must be changed. Acts, such as the George Floyd Justice in Policing bill should be passed and encouraged.
The federal bill, which was passed in 2021 following George Floyd’s murder by a police officer in Minnesota in May earlier that year, aims to reform US police departments by getting rid of radical tactics like no-knock warrants and making it easier and faster to prosecute officers accused of violence. It has not yet been passed after almost three years of waiting, even though its urgency seems to be apparent.
Without reform, the overall reputation of the police and most importantly the trust in the overall institution will surely crumble.
Act now. Break the cycle. Reform the system.