Institutional flaws may have caused the tragedy of Tyre Nichols
The inappropriately named SCORPION (Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods) unit of the Memphis Police in no more. (Wouldn’t the name “Street Crimes Operation” have sufficed, without the aggressive tone?).
The disgusting assault on Tyre Nichols has resulted in its disbandment. It probably needed to happen, both as a PR move and simply for the safety of the city. However, Memphis is still one of the nation’s most dangerous cities, and it needs its police department working hard every day.
Which brings us to a quandary. Memphis needs cops out there stopping crime. A force driving around simply responding from one call to another is not a recipe for success. The city doesn’t need aggressive policing, it needs proactive policing. There is a difference, and that difference springs from good leadership.
Lacking in Memphis?
Leadership needs to develop assiduous professionals who strive for success, not goons who break laws and use violence to rip guns from the street. This is not an easy task. Cops who are into “the job” are not shrinking violets. They are generally type-A personalities. They are also exposed daily to a range of emotions that many people never experience in their entire lives.
“8-adam – respond to an elderly female who fell on the floor and can’t get up.”
“8-adam – respond to a missing person – mother states her daughter didn’t come home last night.”
“8 adam – respond to shots fired….caller now stating male shot.” A teen boy lies on the ground with an open whole in his neck, gurgling breaths as EMS screams down the block. Probably not survivable. So setup the a crime scene and wait for the squad. “Yo, why you fuckin’ cops got my block closed. I live here, let me through.” Stay calm, stay calm.
8 adam – respond to a noise complaint – man claims his neighbor is blasting music.”
23:30 – time to go home. Kid has an early baseball game tomorrow.
That kind of stress will affect the best of us. And not every cop is the best of us. They are humans like anyone else, with virtues and flaws, emotional and self-controlled. Tough people in a tough job.
It is critical that a department’s leadership recognizes those stressors and sets policies safeguarding cops from getting out of control. Of course, all police department should provide emotional support services, but that is not what this is about.
Police leaders need to protect cops from themselves, essentially. They need to create guardrails and barriers to bad behavior. Anyone can lose their temper, good cops included. The fact that five officers worked together to beat a man to death indicates a department that is simply not supervising its cops. And that lack of supervision comes from the top.
What Was Missing
A plainclothes unit like SCORPION should have a supervisor with its teams at all times. Use of force incidents should be documented and reviewed frequently. Who uses force more than others? Why? Who in the department is reviewing body cameras footage on a routine basis? When a prisoner claims an injury, how is that reported and reviewed? How are civilian complaints addressed?
When the district attorney declines to prosecute a case, who reviews that case in the police department? Sometimes prosecutors don’t want to take a case even though the cops did everything right. But other times there is a problematic reason that a case doesn’t get written up. Some cops, in fact, can never seem to get a case prosecuted. What is the problem there? Who from the police department is meeting with the district attorney’s office to find out why?
When a cop appears to be having a problem with use of force there needs to be action taken. An overall review of that officer should take place. It might be a training issue where the officer doesn’t realize he is escalating situations with a particular behavior. Perhaps the cop is a very good cop who is dealing with too much stress and needs a break or some help. Maybe that cop is not best suited for a front-line position — not all cops are the same.
Some internal disciplinary action may also be needed. Perhaps that particular person should not be cop at all and needs to be terminated or even arrested.
The Memphis Police Department appears late to all this – and five officers face a life sentence for murder. That is ultimately the fault of those officers, but what did the leadership in the MPD do to prevent that awful incident? They did release the fact that some of these officers were dinged for failing to fill out paperwork on a minor encounter. It doesn’t seem like much but at least they were looking on some level. But we need to know more.
There needs to be a public accounting of the oversight within the Memphis PD. The people of Memphis need their police, and they need them proactive. If the current administration cannot provide this — while at the same time ensuring accountability — it is likely time for wholesale changes. And that change may well need to start at the top.
By Christopher Flanagan