Activists link death of Tyre Nichols to ‘cowboy’ police culture
Local groups call for greater transparency and accountability following the death of the 29-year-old US father.
As the family of Tyre Nichols held funeral services for the 29-year-old on Wednesday, community groups in the United States city of Memphis, Tennessee, are denouncing the police violence and lack of accountability they believe led to his death.
Nichols, a FedEx employee, skateboarder and father of a four-year-old son, was allegedly pulled over for reckless driving on January 7. Body-camera footage shows police approaching Nichols’s vehicle with weapons drawn, opening his door and yanking him from the driver’s seat.
After Nichols attempted to flee, police beat him, kicking and punching him as he lay near the curb of a suburban street. Nichols died three days later in the hospital.
US Vice President Kamala Harris was among the mourners at his funeral on Wednesday, along with Reverend Al Sharpton, who delivered the eulogy. Family members of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, two Black people killed in acts of police violence, were also in attendance.
But even as city officials announce discipline and criminal charges for officers and emergency responders involved in the Nichols arrest, community leaders and activists in Memphis continue to push for reform in police tactics and community engagement.
“There is a culture of violence and heavy-handedness that has persisted, even though the city now has a majority Black police force, and there is little transparency,” said Marc Perrusquia, director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.
On Monday, city officials said two additional police officers had been disciplined and three emergency responders had been terminated for their roles in Nichols’s arrest and beating.
That comes in addition to the five police officers who were terminated and charged with a range of crimes, from second-degree murder to aggravated assault to official oppression.
All five men — as well as one of the officers relieved of duty on Monday — belonged to the elite “Scorpion Unit”, a police team put together during the COVID-19 pandemic to focus on violent crime. Like many cities, Memphis had seen an uptick in homicides during the pandemic, with 346 recorded in 2021, according to local media reports.
But Perrusquia said he observed that teams like the Scorpion Unit soon acquired a reputation for aggressive tactics. “There’s at least the appearance that members of these special units saw themselves as cowboys and had a ‘don’t mess with us’ approach,” he explained.
The unit was disbanded on Saturday by Memphis police chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis in response to popular outcry.
Andre Johnson, a local organiser with the group Justice and Safety Alliance, told Al Jazeera that there had been problems with the unit “from the start”. He said complaints of abuses against the unit had been widespread well before Nichols’s death.
But Johnson credits the activism of Memphis citizens with helping to bring the officers involved in Nichols’s death to account. Amid demands for public transparency, the city released body-camera footage of the beating last Friday.
“This city has a vibrant activist community that has put pressure on city officials to release the footage and hold those involved to account,” Johnson said. “The anger in the community is still there, but it’s being channeled towards actions in search of justice.”
A 2021 study published in The Lancet medical journal found that deaths from police violence were dramatically underreported, with US national statistics failing to log 17,000 deaths from 1980 to 2018. That amounted to 55.5 percent of all police-related deaths.
And that percentage was even higher for Black people, who faced the highest age-standardised police mortality rate. The study authors found that Black people were 3.5 times more likely to die as the result of encounters with police than white people.
Johnson would like to see city officials move away from the over-policing of Black communities and take a more nuanced approach to addressing crime. He believes the solution lies in addressing the city’s economic and social needs.
“Crime is part and parcel with issues of poverty. Let’s try something new and give these communities the resources they need,” said Johnson. “We are telling anyone who will listen: Over-policing does not work.”
“This is a southern state with a Republican supermajority. Guns are abundant, social services are not,” said Josh Spickler, a former Memphis public defender and executive director of the criminal justice reform group Just City.
Spickler pointed out that, in the absence of public programmes to address crime, the administration of Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland reverted to aggressive tactics that use a dragnet approach, putting a heavy police presence in “hot spot” areas perceived to be associated with crime.
That approach raises the likelihood that residents will come into contact with police during routine activities, Spickler said.
“The mayor’s administration reflexively fell back on a 1990s style of policing, and the type of policing they announced led directly to the death of Tyre Nichols,” Spickler said. “For things to change, our officials are going to have to make different choices.”
In the recently released body-camera footage, one of the officers disciplined on Monday, Preston Hemphill, can be heard saying of Nichols, “I hope they stomp his ass.” Other officers threaten Nichols, saying that they are going to “break your sh**” and “knock your ass the f*** out”.
But Spickler said Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy played a big role in bringing the violence against Nichols to light. Mulroy was elected last year on a platform of holding police officers accountable for abuses, and his department was responsible for filing criminal charges against the officers involved in Nichols’s beating.
“It’s more than fair to credit the DA. We’ve never seen that kind of responsiveness before,” said Spickler.
Activists also attribute the relatively swift action to another factor: the nature of the footage itself.
“The video itself is so horrific, so unjustifiable, that these actions were really the only possible response,” Johnson, the Memphis community organiser, told Al Jazeera. “And the officers thought they could get away with it because of a culture of impunity. If you’re white, Black, or anybody, that culture gets into you.”