Editor’s Note: Sonia Pruitt is a retired Montgomery County, Maryland, police captain. She is the founder of The Black Police Experience, which promotes the education of the intersection of law enforcement and the Black community. She is also a professor of criminal justice at Howard University in Washington, DC, and at Montgomery College in Maryland. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.
The conduct of the Memphis police officers who were charged with fatally beating Tyre Nichols is revolting in its brutality and disheartening in revealing just how little the needle of police reform has moved in decades.
On January 7, officers pulled Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, from his car during a traffic stop and forced him to the ground, shouting threats before spraying him in the face with pepper spray. Questions remain as to why Nichols was stopped, with the Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis saying they have not been able to confirm claims that he had been driving recklessly.
Nichols, who struggled to his feet and ran off, was found minutes later. Police body camera and surveillance footage released Friday showed the officers striking Nichols with a baton, kicking him in the head and repeatedly punching him before propping him against a police car.
The officers then milled around, with no one rendering aid in the critical minutes following the beating. It took an ambulance more than 20 minutes to arrive on the scene, and Nichols, who suffered “extensive bleeding caused by a severe beating,” according to preliminary results of an autopsy commissioned by attorneys for his family, died three days later.
Based on my 28 years of experience as a former police officer and captain, it was clear to me that the officers lacked supervision, showed little professional maturity and escalated a situation into what would eventually become a deadly encounter through gross negligence and a complete disregard for human life.
The damage is even more traumatic for the Black community, given that the five officers who were charged with murder, are all Black. Members of the Black community often expect Black officers to be their vanguard.
To see Black officers embracing brutality and aligning themselves with a police subculture that calls for loyalty to even the most heinous of police behaviors — such as beating subjects who run from the police — is beyond devastating, especially since modern day policing in this country can be traced back to slave patrols, and abuses within the criminal justice system continue to result in the over-policing and death of Black people.
After Nichols’ death, the union representing the officers issued a statement on Facebook that read, “The Memphis Police Association would, again, like to extend condolences to the family of Mr. Tyre Nichols. The Memphis Police Association is committed to the administration of justice and NEVER condones the mistreatment of ANY citizen nor ANY abuse of power.”
The association’s current stance is unusual. It did not defend the arrested officers outright or say that they were just doing a difficult job that required them to make split-second decisions – responses we’ve come to expect from police unions that so often help shield officers accused of misconduct from accountability.
The public has noted the swift action taken against the five officers, all members of a specialized unit tasked with addressing crime, known as Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods (SCORPION). In less than two weeks, all five were fired. Criminal charges were filed and body worn camera video was released in three weeks. These actions were appropriate. As Ben Crump, the attorney representing Nichols’ family, said in a press conference on Friday, we now know that swift transparency and accountability is indeed possible in cases of death involving police officers, and the case in Memphis is a blueprint.
Many have noted the police assault on Nichols is reminiscent of that on Rodney King, a Black man whose beating at the hands of Los Angeles police officers in 1991 was captured on video. But the beating of Nichols is actually much worse because it shows that after nearly 32 years, the needle of police reform has barely moved, and seemingly minor traffic violations continue to lead to the deaths of Black and other minority men and women in police encounters.
Efforts to push for police reform in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in 2020 have been largely replaced with calls to address the fear of rising crime, partially through hiring more police officers. Last year, President Joe Biden proposed funding for 100,000 new police officers as part of his Safer America Plan and the 2023 omnibus appropriations bill includes $324 million in funding to hire more police officers.
However, I know from experience that crime prevention is achieved through trusting relationships between the police and the community it serves, rather than feeding a broken system more police officers. There can be no trust when there is over-policing of disadvantaged communities with suppression units such as the SCORPION unit, which were formed to protect communities – not terrorize them. (On Saturday, the Memphis Police Department announced it will permanently disband its SCORPION unit.)
The federal policing bill that bears George Floyd’s name failed to pass in the Senate and efforts to end qualified immunity, a judicial doctrine that protects police officers from being held personally liable for violating a person’s rights, have not succeeded in Congress.
States and local jurisdictions have tried to tackle police misconduct through new policies and legislation. Law enforcement has conducted training time and again and revised policy over and over, and yet we still have too many unnecessary deaths at the batons, feet, hands, fists, and guns of police.
Such deaths are preventable, but training or a patchwork of local policies will not be sufficient. Transformation will look like dedication to change through federal legislation that addresses the use of no-knock warrants, duty to intervene, use of excessive force, and other dangerous policing issues; the placement of strong political change-makers in office through voting and a commitment by the criminal “justice” system to hold corrupt police officers accountable for their actions through administrative and criminal charges.
Proof of success will come when we never again hear the plaintive cries of a Black man calling for his mother while being brutalized.
This article has been modified to accurately reflect the writer’s experience; she has 28 years of combined experience in law enforcement, not just as a captain.