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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Tyre Nichols beating opens a complex conversation on race and policing

Attorney Ben Crump speaks during a press conference with the family of Tyre Nichols, at Mt. Olive Cathedral CME Church in Memphis, Tenn. on Friday, Jan.


The killing of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man in Memphis, Tennessee, at the hands of police has prompted outrage and condemnation from racial justice activists, police reform advocates and law enforcement officials, including the chief of the Memphis Police Department, a Black woman who lobbied for policing changes in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

The fact that the five officers charged in Nichols’ killing are Black complicates the anguish. It has also brought into focus what many Black people have said is frequently lost in police brutality cases involving white officers and Black victims: that problems of race and policing are a function of an entrenched police culture of aggression and dehumanization of Black people more than of interpersonal racism. It is the system and the tactics that foster racism and violence, they say, rather than the specific racial identities of officers.

“It’s not racism driving this, it’s culturism,” Robert M. Sausedo, the head of a Los Angeles nonprofit formed after the Rodney King beating in 1991, said after watching the video of Nichols’ beating Friday night.

“It’s a culture in law enforcement where it’s OK to be aggressive to those they’re supposed to serve,” Sausedo said. But he also commended Los Angeles police officials for their progress working with the community since the King beating.

Videos released by the city of Memphis on Friday evening, including police body camera footage and shots from a pole-mounted police camera, show Nichols crying out for his mother while officers hold him down, kick him in the head and punch him.

“We have to talk about this institutionalized police culture that has this unwritten law, you can engage in excessive use of force against Black and brown people,” Ben Crump, a prominent civil rights lawyer who is representing Nichols’ family, said in a television interview.

Many urban police departments have been pushing to diversify their ranks — a strategy policing experts still support as one way to improve practices and law enforcement’s relationship with minority communities.

James Forman Jr., who has studied and written on race and law enforcement, said that asking why the race of the officers did not prevent them from committing violence against Nichols loses sight of the systemic forces at work.

“Blackness doesn’t shield you from all of the forces that make police violence possible,” Forman said. “What are the theories of policing and styles of policing, the training that police receive? All of those dynamics that propel violence and brutality are more powerful than the race of the officer.”

Amber Sherman, an activist and organizer working with the Nichols family as they push for policy changes in the police, said that racism is a clear factor in policing when you look at who the victims of police violence are, not the race of the officers.

Officers of all races “are indoctrinated into a practice that sees Black people and brown people as less than,” Sherman said.

On social media, some people rejected the idea that racism was to blame, arguing that pointing to systemic policing robs individuals of agency and responsibility.

“Can’t people be bad people motivated by their lack of maturity, self-awareness and inability to discern? Does every incident involving police and black men have to revert back to being an issue in race?” Barrington Martin II, a former Democratic congressional candidate in Georgia, wrote on Twitter.

Conservative commentator Allie Beth Stuckey wrote on Twitter that “It is a warped worldview that can’t grapple with the fact that people of all races do bad things. Black police brutally beating a black man isn’t because of white supremacy, racism or a system. They did it because people have the capacity to do wrong.”

Others expressed disappointment that Black officers did not have more empathy as well as concern that the race of the officers would muddle the issue of entrenched police violence against Black people.

“As an African American, it’s unfortunate that because the officers are Black, people are going to say violence against Blacks is not racially motivated,” said Joel Kellum, 57, a public school teacher in New York City. “Black cops will do that to Black perps, too,” Kellum added. “It’s complicated and it’s sad.”

Police reform advocates have long argued that departments should more accurately reflect the demographics of the communities they police as a way to improve policing and help build trust in those communities. In Memphis, 65% of the population is Black, as is 58% of the police force.

“We have a very simplistic way of approaching the problem of policing and believing that representation is some kind of silver bullet,” said Jody Armour, a University of Southern California law professor who studies racial justice. “It’s not just a Black and white issue, but a Black and blue one. And when you put on that blue uniform, it often becomes the primary identity that drowns out any other identities that might compete with it.”

Patrick Yoes, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, a national law enforcement organization, called the reported failure of other officers to intervene in the fatal beating of Nichols “sickening,” adding: “The event as described to us does not constitute legitimate police work or a traffic stop gone wrong. This is a criminal assault under the pretext of law.”

Friday night, the group that represents Memphis police officers offered condolences to the Nichols family but did not address the actions of the officers. “The Memphis Police Association is committed to the administration of justice and never condones the mistreatment of any citizen nor any abuse of power,” a statement from the association read.

Many police reform activists say diversifying police forces, especially in leadership, has made a difference and remains a worthy goal. (Nichols himself once considered becoming a police officer as a way of changing policing from the inside, a friend said.)

The fact that Nichols was assaulted by Black officers “doesn’t mean that we should abandon what’s critical like diversifying police departments,” said Miriam Krinsky, a former prosecutor who is now executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution. “Individuals who come from communities that are most policed and at times overpoliced have a right to expect that those who we charge to keep them safe and build their trust come from, and have a connection to, those communities,” she said.

Still Krinsky acknowledged that police reform has to go beyond diversity. “Because if we hire the right people, but then the culture of the organization, and how they’re trained, and the tone and values that are modeled aren’t the right ones — just having the right people alone isn’t going to be a solution to some of the concerns about police behavior.”

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