'A failing of basic humanity': Former police officers grapple with Tyre Nichols killing

Officers stand near Tyre Nichols on Jan. 7 in this image from video released by the Memphis Police Department.
Officers stand near Tyre Nichols on Jan. 7 in this image from video released by the Memphis Police Department. (Handout via Reuters)

WASHINGTON — The gruesome footage of Memphis police officers viciously beating Tyre Nichols, a motorist who had been stopped for alleged reckless driving on Jan. 7, stunned law enforcement officials and experts across the U.S., who instantly grasped that their profession would suffer deep damage from the actions of the five officers.

“This is not just a professional failing, but a failing of basic humanity,” wrote Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, formerly the city’s police chief, in a social media post.

Across the country, police chiefs and law enforcement organizations released similar statements condemning the killing of Nichols, 29, who was beaten by members of a unit called Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods, or SCORPION, and died three days after the assault.

“These guys are just bad at their job,” Peter Moskos, a former police officer who now teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told Yahoo News. There were no “mitigating circumstances,” he observed, which officers may sometimes use to explain why they used deadly force. “That's what makes it unusual."

In fact, Nichols tried to comply with the dozens of commands the officers barked at him, and at one point, bewildered and in pain, he called out for his mother, the video shows.

Policing experts have struggled to make sense of what Nichols’s death would mean for a profession that has been under scrutiny since the rise of the Black Lives Matter racial justice movement in 2013, and in particular since the protests that took place during the summer of 2020, following the deaths of several Black people at the hands of police officers.

A person in a crowd of protesters in New York City holds a sign that reads: End police terror.
Protesters in New York City following the release of videos showing Memphis police officers beating Nichols. (David Dee Delgado/Reuters)

“First and foremost, the vast majority of our officers are honest and trustworthy,” Brenda Goss Andrews, president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, told Yahoo News.

But like most of her peers across the country, the former Detroit Police Department deputy chief knew that the latest footage to shock the nation could not be dismissed as an aberration.

She decried the “culture of aggression” that continues to permeate law enforcement, arguing that the officers — who kicked, punched, pepper-sprayed and tased Nichols, even after he was plainly incapacitated — had to have felt empowered to behave as they did. They did not even bother to turn off their body cameras, which recorded the beating. The footage was made public last week.

“That kind of starts with the CEO,” Goss Andrews told Yahoo News. Moskos agreed: “It’s not just these five cops.”

Cerelyn “CJ” Davis, the Memphis police chief, was a longtime police officer in Atlanta, eventually rising to the rank of deputy chief. In 2008, she was fired for what the Atlanta Journal-Constitution described as a “botched investigation” into an alleged sex crime. She was later reinstated.

Davis came to Memphis in 2021, as crime was spiking across the country and police departments were starting to wonder if reform efforts undertaken throughout the previous decade had gone too far. She started the SCORPION unit with the mandate to be “tough on tough people.”

Mug shots, from top left, of Demetrius Haley, Justin Smith, Emmitt Martin III, Tadarrius Bean and Desmond Mills Jr.
Mug shots, from top left, of Demetrius Haley, Justin Smith, Emmitt Martin III, Tadarrius Bean and Desmond Mills Jr., the former Memphis police officers charged in Nichols’s death. (Shelby County Sheriff's Office/Handout via Reuters)

After the footage of the Nichols arrest was made public, Davis expressed the dismay that many police officers across the country seemed to feel. Condemnation of the officers by their peers seemed to reflect the desire to show that progress had been made — however modest — since the footage of George Floyd’s killing shocked the nation in 2020.

“I haven’t heard any defense of these officers or anyone suggesting this behavior was either acceptable or within range of what in any universe would be considered normal,” Hannah Meyers, a policing expert at the right-leaning Manhattan Institute and a former intelligence specialist at the New York Police Department, told Yahoo News.

“These officers behaved well outside the bounds of police protocols, good officer judgment or respect and compassion,” she said.

Others noted that during the 13-minute beating the SCORPION unit members administered to Nichols, no senior officers materialized to intervene and deescalate.

“I have yet to see a video of the incident with a sergeant present, let alone anyone in charge,” Brandon del Pozo, the former police chief of Burlington, Vt., told Yahoo News in a text message. “Memphis was young, inexperienced, amped-up cops given a mandate to ‘clean up the streets’ and left to run amok.”

An image taken from bodycam footage.
An image from bodycam footage on the night Nichols was stopped by police. (City of Memphis handout/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Goss Andrews agreed that on-the-scene supervision was blatantly missing. “I never saw a supervisor come to that scene,” she said.

SCORPION was dedicated to so-called hot-spot policing, an innovation first implemented in New York City in the early 1990s through the use of its CompStat program, which forced precinct commanders to confront crime data and justify their use of resources, including allocation of personnel, to NYPD chiefs at One Police Plaza.

Critics of the practice say it can turn neighborhoods where Black and brown people live into militarized zones where law enforcement is seen by many as an occupying force.

“You can do hot-spot policing in a way that’s super aggressive, or you can do it in a way that’s more respectful,” Colby College sociologist Neil Gross told the New York Times.

In a city that is often regarded as one of the most violent in the country, officers tragically decided on the former approach when arresting Nichols, who was not armed and who leaves behind a 4-year-old son.

A photo of Tyre Nichols on a large video screen at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans.
The screen at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans honors Nichols before an NBA game on Jan. 28. (Matthew Hinton/AP)

“Even the unit’s name, SCORPION, suggests the mission and the license they were given,” del Pozo, now a professor of public health and policy at Brown University, told Yahoo News.

Police forces in countries like Germany train officers much longer, and more thoroughly, than those in the U.S. Facing recruiting shortages, many of those departments have lowered standards for who would be accepted into their ranks. And not enough of the training they do receive, experts believe, focuses on ways to lessen tensions during confrontations.

“We spend many hours at the gun range,” former Memphis Police Officer James Kirkwood, now a pastor, told NPR.

Goss Andrews says that most officers are, in fact, trained in ways to keep confrontations with the public from spinning out of control and into violence. The question is whether such training matters in the moment, as officers are chasing a suspect or wrestling an individual to the floor.

“I’m sure they were trained that way,” she says of deescalation techniques. “Did those officers follow their training? Absolutely not.”