Editorial: Message from Memphis: Policing is more than Black and white

Along with our heartfelt sympathies for their loss, we extend our gratitude and admiration to the family of Tyre Nichols, the 29-year-old father who died three days after a sickeningly savage police beating in Memphis on Jan. 7.

The family’s courageous call for protesters to avoid violence as they demanded justice appears to have helped Americans to process some of the anger and pain of this horrible episode and mercifully maintain peace after the release of the incendiary video.

The video shows Nichols putting up no defense as five police officers drag him from his car and punch, kick, tackle, pepper-spray, shout dozens of contradictory orders at him. They tase the defenseless, 29-year-old FedEx worker — and then laugh about it.

No question that the video offers much to be outraged about. Instead of trying to bring order, the police in these video images appear to be creating more disorder, until Mr. Nichols is taken away unconscious — without any reason becoming apparent as to why police stopped him in the first place.

The officers were immediately fired and the district attorney brought charges including second-degree murder and aggravated kidnapping.

And, once again, the nation is left to ask what went wrong and how can we avoid such tragedies from happening again?

In Memphis, attention quite properly turned to the special unit in which these particular cops were working. Known by the acronym SCORPION, for “Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods,” it emerged in the ways that similar strike-force units have been created in other cities, including Chicago, at various times as part of a get-tough response to surges in crimes. Chief Cerelyn Davis formed the Memphis unit in 2021 shortly after she became the first Black woman to lead the department.

In response to rising homicide numbers and, among other hazards, incidents of late-night drag racing and stunt driving on the city’s streets, she deployed some 40 officers to focus less on writing tickets and more on aggressive strategies such as seizing cars from the most dangerous drivers.

But, as arrests went up, so did complaints of heavy-handed tactics, particularly by this team, in response to relatively minor offenses. Such past complaints seemed to be graphically illustrated in the present by the bodycam video that showed officers beating Nichols relentlessly as he pleaded to be released to go home.

Although born out of a desire to respond quickly in neighborhoods torn apart by crime, these units often create new problems. The Memphis Police Department immediately disbanded its SCORPION unit after Nichols’ death.

The tragedy has to be particularly frustrating for Chief Davis, a former president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. While the killing of Nichols reminds many of the deaths of Laquan McDonald in Chicago or George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of white police, Nichol’s case offers the less frequent and perhaps more complicated example of a Black victim killed by Black officers.

That’s a possible sign of what retired New York Detective Marquez Claxton, director of the Black Law Enforcement Alliance, called a “toxic police culture which, of course, sometimes can be fed by racism.”

All of these issues and more have been raised in Chicago, where issues of race and policing are often intertwined.

Even among police officers themselves, the use of specialized units has long been controversial. District officers are divided as to how much value the specialized units who operate citywide can have, compared to officers who are more familiar with the communities they patrol day in, day out. Officers assigned to specialized citywide units “do not know the good kids from the bad kids,” said an officer quoted in a recent university study of Chicago high crime “hot spots.” After they alienate local young people, for example, they then leave neighborhood officers “to clean up the mess.” The research suggests this is not a matter of the race of the individual officers, but of the kind of policing they are being told to do.

In the wake of Nichols’ death, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, called on Sens. Cory Booker (D.-N.J.) and Tim Scott (R.-S.C.) to re­sume their talks for fed­eral polic­ing legislation.

Previous talks ultimately stalled on such sticking points as whether police should be shielded from lawsuits and whether national policing standards could be imposed without funding for local departments to pay for them. Still.

“It’s the right starting point,” said Durbin on ABC “This Week” Sunday.

Let’s hope so. A similar bill, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, repeatedly passed the House under Democrats and President Joe Biden has said it should be taken up again.

One thing that mercifully has not been heard in the current talks is the self-defeating “Defund the Police” slogan that emerged out of the Democrat’s progressive wing on the heels of Floyd’s tragic death.

Now we have a new tragedy. Let us drum up a new seriousness about improving big-city policing, preventing such tragedies from happening again. It’s not an impossible task.

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