Image via Reuters
BY HUEY COLLETTE | STAFF WRITER
FEB. 26, 2023
MEMPHIS, United States–On January 7, 2023, Tyre Nichols was murdered after being stopped at a traffic light by five former Memphis police officers. Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmit Martin, III, Desmond Mills, Jr., and Justin Smith were all black policemen operating as the specialized street crime unit “Scorpion.” The unit was disbanded shortly after the fatal incident. As of February 17, the five former officers have been indicted with second-degree murder among other charges but have pleaded not guilty on all counts.
The complete list of charges against the five police officers is “second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping resulting in bodily injury, aggravated kidnapping involving the possession of a weapon, official misconduct through the unauthorized exercise of power, official misconduct through the failure to act when there is a duty imposed by law, and official oppression.”
On January 27, body camera footage of the incident was released to the public. Nichols was beaten like a “human piñata,” according to Nichols’ family lawyer, Ben Crump. Crump also made a comparison to the 1991 beating of Rodney King, saying, “Unlike Rodney King, Tyre didn’t survive.”
Captured by a passing stranger on a camcorder, the footage of four white officers taking turns beating Rodney King spurred action toward diversifying the overall police force. However, Lora King, Rodney King’s daughter, expressed in a Las Vegas Sun interview that “the only difference between 30-plus years with my father and now is we now have hashtags, clear video and phones.”
Both incidents of police brutality enacted against Rodney King and Tyre Nichols sparked national outrage and protests in their wake. Anti-police activists have used the Nichols case, the latest in the long history of racial profiling against Black Americans, to express critical opinions on the intrinsically discriminatory system of American policing.
While guest speaking on the news program Democracy Now!, prison abolitionist Andrea Ritchie stated: “This is not an aberration. This is not an exception to the rule…it is essential that we think about responses that will take not only power away from police to engage in this kind of behavior, by taking them, for instance, out of traffic stops, but also the resources and the weaponry and the legitimacy that enables them to continue to engage in this kind of behavior.”
Additionally, Jessica Jaglois and Joseph Goldstein, writers for the NY Times, wrote an article highlighting the absence of supervisors on the scene. The writers cited Earl J. Fisher, an activist and pastor at Abyssinian Baptist Church, who called attention to the fact that “the five men charged all held the rank of police officer.” For example, in most big-city police departments, for every six or seven police officers, a sergeant is assigned to supervise the proceedings. According to Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis, their ratio of officers to sergeants is 10:1.
A consistent lack of supervision and accountability may be seen as a direct result of America’s largely decentralized police structure, as more than half of all deaths caused by fatal police violence go unreported. “If a system is problematic, it doesn’t matter who you plug into it. You will get the same result,” said Duane Loynes, Sr., an assistant professor at Rhodes College in Memphis.
In response to these tragedies, the Nichols family is advocating for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. The Act includes funding incentives for limiting the use of force, a progressive model for the banning of racial profiling, and the creation of a Nation Police Misconduct registry.
The five former officers are currently released on bail with a court return date of May 1.
Huey Collette is currently a junior majoring in English and pursuing a minor in philosophy at UC Berkeley. He transferred from San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton, CA, but bounced around different parts of the Bay Area throughout his childhood. When not feverishly reading or writing, he enjoys producing music, fencing, and horror films. He is a writer for Vanguard at Berkeley’s Prison Reform desk.