The murder of Tyre Nichols at the hands of five Memphis police officers has again brought about a national conversation about police brutality. Pundits, politicians, and community members are opining about how Nichols’ murder, documented in 66 minutes of bodycam video footage, are the result of issues ranging from “racial inequity” to a “culture of police violence.”
When looking at the footage from the perspective of a former law enforcement officer, policy consultant, and expert witness, the footage illustrates institutional gaps in training, recruitment, and law enforcement management. The issue is prevalent nationwide and impacts Philadelphia, as well. When watching the video of the Nichols beating, an officer screams, “Watch out, I’m gonna baton the fuck outta ya!” after a team from a highly specialized unit seemingly had trouble chasing and apprehending Nichols, whose build was thin-to-average at best. Worse, the Memphis officers held Nichols up like a rag doll and punched him in the head after he had been subdued.
An autopsy found that Nichols died because he “suffered excessive bleeding caused by a severe beating.” All five officers have been fired and criminally charged with murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct, and other offenses.
The Nichols case presents a unique opportunity to study controversial use of force deaths, as Nichols was killed at the hands of five African-American police officers, who used excessive force in a majority African-American city run by a female, African-American police chief. The media and political classes normally pivot to inaccurate talking points of “white supremacy,” as evidenced by a recent New York Times piece which quoted a pundit lamenting how “it’s unfortunate that because the officers are black, people are going to say violence against blacks is not racially motivated.”
The incident’s demonstration of abuse of power, cruelty, and violence goes beyond the five criminals with police badges. It also raises serious questions regarding the quality of police recruitment, training, and management. It’s easy for a political class and media pundits with no law enforcement experience to allege a “culture of impunity among police officers,” but the fact that these police officers were promptly fired and charged — negating the common narrative of a cover-up — further displayed that body camera footage was shared once prosecutors were ready to charge.
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The real issue at hand
Over the last two decades, career police executives have been replaced by chiefs who do not challenge the ineffective policy views of the politicians who appoint them. As a result, the effective policing strategies that delivered American society from the crime waves of the 1960s through the 1990s have been shunned by progressive prosecutors, left-wing mayors, and local voting bases unsympathetic to the law enforcement community. You can see this in a public emphasis on “softer” messaging, where Commissioners like Danielle Outlaw regularly tweet about community meetings, or when officers play basketball or dance at community events. But when the harsh reality of violent crime hits home, these same Commissioners pressure the rank and file for “drugs and guns on the table.”
Pressure for “drugs and guns on the table” comes from the need for a press conference announcing a big arrest where the evidence is stacked neatly by the podium for the press to see, but the same departments are simultaneously “defunding” the specialized career paths that lead to the longer-term investigative work that result in major cases. This results in a demoralization of police morale, but the widespread replacement of long-term policing strategies with a combination of uniformed patrols and plain-clothes “jump out” units making street arrests on lower-level offenders.
A recent New York Post report revealed that two of the five police officers in the Nichols case had just joined the force in 2020, after Memphis had reduced educational requirements to become a police officer. Furthermore, the Memphis Police Department recently lowered the physical-ability standards necessary to apprehend resisting suspects effectively, and even waived background restrictions for applicants with criminal records to join the force to maintain a minimum staffing of officers.
Traditionally, when a Chief of Police creates a new tactical unit to address a disturbing rise in crime, members are selected based on a combination of track record and seniority. Therefore, it’s troubling that such unprofessional “rookies” were assigned to the “elite” SCORPION unit, a specialized unit formed in 2021 to fight violent street crime.
Is this limited to Memphis? Absolutely not. As progressive prosecutors and local politicians have targeted officers for an issue of their own creation, policing has become an unattractive profession nationwide, which results in a lower quality of officers that cities can attract.
When a city is hurting, it doesn’t just need more cops, but better cops recruited from a national base, working in a more efficient department.
This is the ongoing case of the Baltimore City Police Department, whose vaunted “Gun Trace Task Force” had a similar story of corruption and abuse told in the brilliant David Simon HBO miniseries “We Own This City.” At the conclusion of Baltimore’s scandal, the “Gun Trace Task Force” was disbanded. Similarly, the Memphis Police Department disbanded its SCORPION team over the weekend after five of its members were charged in the death of Nichols.
In New York, plain clothes street crime and precinct anti-crime units were disbanded during the DeBlasio administration. Here in Philadelphia, Commissioner Danielle Outlaw has limited the proven (albeit aggressive) policing units like the Highway Patrol and Narcotics Strike Force and banned the use of chemical irritants on unlawful protesters amid the George Floyd riots, despite investigations showing that she personally ordered the use of these munitions.
As a result, crime in Memphis, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and even New York currently have extremely high violent crime rates, undoing decades of progress following the crack explosion of the 1990s. The disbanding of active policing units amid scandal strikes as an iteration of the “defund the police” movement, and while many politicians admit that police departments need to offer higher salaries and benefits to attract applicants, they fail to realize that quality officers will keep fleeing to states like Texas and Florida until elected officials support their officers against these false narratives and return to a career-based policing model.
Career-based policing models are how officers were recruited, trained, and offered continuous career development before the era of the “disposable” police officer. I witnessed this firsthand when leaving the New York law enforcement culture, where promotion and transfer to specialized units was encouraged, to go to the Washington, DC’s Metropolitan Police Department under then-Chief Charles Ramsey. What I learned in this move was that politically prominent police executives, like Ramsey and Outlaw, seemed more interested in keeping officers in visible patrol units as opposed to giving them a career path toward specialized units that worked long-term, more targeted investigations. Furthermore, many such chiefs are known for unlawful personnel actions against officers who find themselves embroiled in politically charged complaints, regardless of due process or civil service laws.
Ideally, police departments should be incredibly selective, in the way that the New Jersey State Police, who in exchange for a six-digit base salary range, requires a four-year degree and competitive physical exam as opposed to their local and Pennsylvania counterparts. It’s obvious in looking at the Nichols footage that the Memphis Police needs better training in the use of force continuum, physical conditioning, and professionalism. But like Baltimore and Philadelphia, Memphis is a poor, mismanaged city with some of the highest violent crime rates in the nation.
Given that Tennessee saw the third highest increase in population and business investment in America over the last three years, Memphis’s political leaders have failed to offer its citizens protection from crime, in stark contrast to the booming cities of Nashville and Knoxville.
When a city is hurting, it doesn’t just need more cops, but better cops recruited from a national base, working in a more efficient department. This is what City Council President Darryl Clarke failed to realize when attempting to solidify municipal residency requirements following the George Floyd riots. It’s not only vital to attract new recruits dangling pay and benefits in front of them, but to support them by offering protections against bogus complaints, a streamlined arrest-to-court process, a career path that protects them from burnout, and clear accountability for misbehavior included.
William Bratton, the former Commissioner of the Boston and New York City Police Departments and Chief of the NYC Transit and Los Angeles Police Departments, said the Memphis unit ran into trouble because it lacked necessary training. “The nature of these units require significant supervision, something that was apparently missing in the SCORPION unit in Memphis,” he told CBS News. “And then, most importantly, training, training and training.”
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CBS News had also reported confidential statements from a former Memphis police officer, who stated the SCORPION unit’s training consisted of only three days of PowerPoint presentations, one day of suspect apprehension training and one day at the firing range, in a similar nature to the plagued gun trace task force in Baltimore, where eight officers were later convicted of racketeering and extortion, among other charges. Though the Memphis Police Department has “deactivated” the SCORPION unit, Bratton said such anti-crime task forces are essential to policing — but only with proper training and supervision.
In contrast, when Bratton ran the NYPD, plain clothes officers who served eighteen months in an investigative capacity (such as an undercover narcotics or public morals officer) were awarded promotion to Detective third grade, and were required to remain in that unit for an additional eighteen months leading cases before they could transfer. This three-year career path not only helped hone the skills and professionalism of these officers but assured better cases and conviction rates for their arrests. Bratton also pioneered best practices in recruitment not used in cities like Philadelphia as well. Upon taking the reins of the Los Angeles Police, Bratton sent recruiters all over the country to tempt highly-qualified applicants to sunny California, scheduling all pre-background examinations in a one-week trip, which emphasized recruiting efficiency instead of lowering standards.
Cities like Memphis and Philadelphia need to invest in policing in lieu of the current knee-jerk political practice of curtailing effective policing, recruiting, and training tactics in response to a small number of crimes committed by officers. By investing, law enforcement can not only hire more quality candidates, but retain these dedicated public servants devoted to protecting and defending their communities.
Instead of parroting the policy positions of Mayor Jim Kenney and DA Larry Krasner, Commissioner Outlaw should have used her experiences in Portland to find more effective and creative ways for law enforcement to perform their duties. Consider the amount of time spent in arrest processing, court, and hospital duties because the best practices of partnering with the courts, prosecutors, and sheriffs in the arrest process aren’t utilized here as is common in a multitude of other jurisdictions nationwide. Furthermore, cities like Los Angeles provide more effective training for law enforcement recruits, in the academy as well as in field training, instilling professionalism to prevent incidents like the one in Memphis.
If we were to properly address the horrific crime that has resulted in over 500 murders a year, Philadelphia’s law enforcement community must examine and improve how they do their jobs; and how they can tap into best practices from cities like Miami and Dallas, whose crime dropped while ours skyrocketed, to examine how they can manage the criminal justice system more effectively.
A. Benjamin Mannes, MA, CPP, CESP, is a Subject Matter Expert in Security & Criminal Justice Reform based on his own experiences on both sides of the criminal justice system. He has served as a federal and municipal law enforcement officer and was the former Director, Office of Investigations with the American Board of Internal Medicine. @PublicSafetySME