Sunday Commentary: Does Nichols Really Represent a Step Forward in Accountability?

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

The New York Times calls it a “shift in handling police violence.”  The article notes, “With cameras nearly everywhere, and residents wary, the authorities are moving faster and speaking critically when officers are accused of beatings.”

The Times articles compares the speed of the Memphis case to that of Laquan McDonald from 2014.  In that case it took 13 months and an order from a judge to release the video, which forced the hand of authorities in that case.

Memphis may be a hint as to how things could be handled in the post-George Floyd world.  Murder charges and released videos within three weeks of the incident.

Criticism is raining in from all over the country on this one.  In one sense, the Times is right—once upon a time, charges were rare to non-existent against officers accused of a murder in the course of duty.  Rare is the case like Laquan McDonald where the police officer, Van Dyke, was convicted.  Rarer still was the case like Derek Chauvin, who will serve lengthy and real time for it.

“We want to proclaim that this is the blueprint going forward for any time any officers, whether they be Black or white, will be held accountable,” Attorney Ben Crump said. “No longer can you tell us we got to wait six months to a year.”

I agree in part—but Tyre Nichols also represents an incident with national implications much as George Floyd did.

But I wonder if this wasn’t a perfect storm scenario.  They had a lot of video and it was relatively unequivocal.  While I have heard some pundits and legal analysts state that this might be more difficult to get a conviction on, two factors point away from that.

The first is the length of time before they got him critical medical attention.  This was part of what sunk Derek Chauvin.

The second is the audio from the incident and the language used by the officers.  That’s going to make it very hard to mount the usual defense that they were in fear for their lives, as they are screaming obscenities and seemingly celebrating it.

Why did the police act so quickly to release the videos and fired the officers?

I suspect it was the only way the chief thought he could save his own job—get ahead of the scandal in a minority-majority community like Memphis.  They fired the officers, disbanded the SCORPION group, released the video—in a lot of these high-profile cases, the police chiefs lose their jobs as well.

But remember, the Nichols case represents the very top in terms of publicity.

Take the case of Contra Costa Sheriff’s Deputy Andrew Hall.  In October the Contra Costa DA’s office declined to file charges for the 2021 fatal shooting of Tyrell Wilson.

The finding came despite the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors approving a $4.5 million settlement for the family in May—and following Wilson’s conviction last fall for unlawfully firing his police gun ten times into a car driven by Laudemer Arboleda, who died from the shooting.  Arboleda was also homeless and mentally impaired when he was killed on November 3, 2018.

Hall was sentenced to six years in prison for that killing.

And it came despite the fact that Contra Costa is led by Diana Becton, one of the very few Black women elected to DA in the country, who was elected on a progressive platform—twice.

There’s the case of Angelo Quinto out of Antioch, also in Contra Costa County.

In December of 2020, Bella Quinto-Collins called 911 seeking help for her 30-year-old brother having a mental health crisis.  When police arrived however, they pulled Angelo Quinto from his mother’s arm and eventually for five minutes knelt on his back until he stopped breathing.  It was a scene reminiscent of George Floyd from earlier that year.

Last summer, the family learned the official determination of cause of death— “excited delirium syndrome.”

As the Vanguard reported last May, that finding is deeply problematic, and yet, it is effectively preventing any notion of the officers being held accountable for what otherwise would be a George Floyd-like death.

Then there is the case of Sean Monterrosa in Vallejo, coming days after George Floyd.

In October, more than two years after the fact, the city of Vallejo finally fired the officer as an independent investigation concluded that his use of deadly force in the shooting of a 22-year-old man in 2020 “was not objectively reasonable” —but the DA has failed to bring any charges to date and the AG’s office has been slow to act.

Having covered the Monterrosa case from the start, it is baffling that the police who shot an unarmed man and mistook a hammer for a gun, while the man had stopped and gotten down on his knees, would not be prosecuted.

One of my theories for why officials could move so quickly in Tyre Nichols is the same reason everyone in the country could condemn it—it is a freebie.

Look at the reaction out of San Francisco.

Mayor Breed issued a quick statement, calling the actions “horrific” and “inhumane.

“We are angry and disgusted by yet another senseless loss of life of an unarmed black man at the hands of those who are sworn to serve and protect all people,” Breed said on Friday.  “No one is above the law and true justice means seeing the officers responsible for these crimes held accountable by the full extent of the law.”

DA Jenkins tweeted, “What we all just watched from Memphis is beyond comprehension. I am both disheartened & outraged. As a Black woman & member of law enforcement, I feel a greater obligation to treat people with dignity & respect in this role. What I witnessed was mob violence & abuse of power.”

But Jenkins and Breed have both backed the police in high profile cases in San Francisco.

Just after her election in November, victims of police violence complained to Mission Local that Jenkins had cut off communications.

There is no doubt that things have shifted somewhat—but remember, there is no statute of limitations on death cases.  Do you see prosecutors revisiting cases such as Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and some of the other high-profile cases of the past that seemed questionable at best?

In the end, those cases are going to remain rare and, as the conduct of the officers in Tyre Nichols killing showed, the officers were not in fear of consequences even with the cameras on recording every punch, kick and statement.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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