Following the killing of Tyre Nichols, many across the country are again asking themselves ‘why’? Why do these incidents continue to happen? Despite the Black Lives Matter movement and the 2020 protests following the murder of George Floyd — police brutality and its disproportionate impact on Black people remains such an intractable issue in the United States. Udi Ofer, founding director of the Princeton Policy Advocacy Clinic and former Deputy National Political Director of the ACLU, and Laurence Ralph, Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University and the Director of Center on Transnational Policing offers their thoughts on what is the latest in a long line of unacceptable instances of excessive force by police officers; what leaders need to do to increase police accountability and prevent unnecessary interactions between police and civilians in the future; and how the next generation can finally transform how the country approaches public safety.
Q. What are your thoughts on the response so far by Memphis authorities to the killing of Mr. Tyre Nichols?
Ofer: Memphis officials bear responsibility for allowing this kind of violent behavior to take place in their police force. Such violence does not come out of nowhere; there is a culture that allows it to flourish. Memphis police has a long history of using force at higher rates against Black people than white people. At the same time, I do think it's important to credit Memphis authorities for responding quickly by filing charges against the officers and releasing surveillance footage of this incident. I think this is at least partially explained by the fact that Shelby County, TN, which includes Memphis, elected a new district attorney last year, Steve Mulroy, who ran on a criminal justice reform platform, beating an incumbent who was known for her tough-on-crime politics. Mulroy ran on a racial justice platform that included holding police officers accountable, and we are starting to see the results of those campaign promises now.
Q. All five of the officers who have been charged with the murder of Mr. Nichols were part of a specialized police unit known as SCORPION, which according to the Memphis Police Department was created in 2021 to focus on "high crime hot spots”. The unit has since been disbanded, but other cities have similar police squads still in place. What are your thoughts on police units like these?
Ofer: Specialized police units like SCORPION aggressively patrol areas considered high-crime, often in plain clothes and in unmarked cars, and proactively stop, frisk, and arrest people for low-level offenses in the hope of deterring the next shooter or drug dealer. These types of units have a long history of operating with a cowboy mentality and engaging in practices like planting evidence and excessive use of force. I remember back in 1999, when the NYPD’s equivalent, the Street Crimes Unit, killed Amadou Diallo in a hail of 41 bullets. I was a young law student then, and this was my entry into the movement against police misconduct. Cities should rethink deploying these types of squads, which tend to create much more harm than good. Instead, local government should focus their resources on other strategies that have been shown to reduce violence, like investments in summer jobs and after school programs, violence intervention programs, and more funding for community support programs.
Ralph: In my ethnographic work on policing, I have interviewed officers who are members of specialized units like SCORPION in Chicago and New Orleans. I found that these units often revolve around specific cultural norms, such as the notion of the “heroic cop,” who must always be on guard in dangerous situations. The officers I’ve spoken with identify with representations of police officers and detectives in popular culture. They constantly reference TV shows like Cops or Law & Order when describing their work. But the most troubling thing I found is that, because of their specialization and “elite” status, these units are, by mandate, unconcerned with ordinary “crime control” and instead operate as if always already in a state of emergency. This perspective has profound implications for how the leaders of these units speak about law enforcement in the communities they serve. They call for a war against crime, a war on drug dealers, and a war on violent gangs. This language, in turn, legitimizes the police’s view of the situation facing them when, for instance, they pull over someone like Tyre Nichols.
When I saw the video footage of Tyre Nichols’s severe beating, a beating which would cause his death, I understood that his assailants had perceived him, from the outset, as an enemy combatant. They believed him to be the source or potential source of violence and, therefore, responsible for the violence he received. It is no secret that there is broad discretion for the police officer to decide who looks suspicious and what constitutes suspicious activity. Nor is it new or surprising to note that juries often believe that the police should fear Black urban residents and that this fear is a valid and “reasonable” response to police violence. The difference in the troubling video of Tyre Nichols’s fatal beating is that it is clear that the police officers involved were not motivated by fear. The police officers seemed to approach his beating as a sport. And thus, to comprehend the excessive nature of this violence, we must first understand how some police officers are attracted to units like SCORPION as a source of thrill-seeking entertainment and not merely a job.
Q. Based on tracking conducted by The Washington Post and the Mapping Police Violence Project, police killed more people in 2022 than any other year in the past decade, and Black people were three times more likely to be killed by police than white people. What does this tell you about the state of policing in the United States?
Ofer: The summer of 2020 saw the largest civil rights protests in American history demanding an end to police violence. Yet two years later, more people were killed by the police and the widespread public spotlight on this issue had largely diminished — until the release of the videos of the killing of Mr. Nichols refocused the public’s attention. In fact, the last couple of years have featured a political backlash on issues of racial justice and holding police accountable for wrongdoing, with this last midterm election seeing a resurgence of tough-on-crime politics. The status quo cannot go on. It’s time to move beyond performative reforms and genuinely transform the way we build safety in America, and invest in programs and resources that support people, not criminalize them.
Q. What are some of the policy steps that you think should be taken in response to the killing of Mr. Nichols and similar incidents?
Ofer: While much of the debate around police brutality has taken place on the national stage, local leaders hold significant power on this issue. There are three key steps local authorities and policymakers can take immediately that would make substantial progress on this issue. First, law enforcement must end their reliance on notoriously violent specialized crime-prevention units, such as the SCORPION unit, which killed Mr. Nichols. These units are rewarded for their aggressiveness and proactivity in stopping, frisking, and arresting civilians. Without question, the harm they cause the communities they police is far greater than their success in preventing crime. Second, cities should rethink the role of police in enforcing traffic laws and low-level offenses. Arrests for low-level offenses, such as personal drug use, and the thousands of traffic stops police make daily, too frequently serve as a flashpoint for a potentially violent confrontation without the benefit of meaningfully lowering crime. One approach to this is decriminalizing personal drug possession, which is the number one reason for arrest in America. Third, we need to hold police accountable when they break the law and abuse their power. That means ending qualified immunity, building strong independent civilian complaint review boards, and electing reform-oriented prosecutors who recognize that no one is above the law and each of us deserves justice.
Q. Anything else you would like to add?
Ofer: I think we’re in the midst of a generational shift on this issue. You look at polling, and younger people view the problem of police violence and the problem of racism in policing as a top issue. I see this firsthand here at Princeton SPIA, where my course on policing and civil rights fills up quickly each year. This is not a surprise, as it is this generation that has grown up with the Black Lives Matter movement, which has done so much to spark a debate on these issues. This gives me hope that the next generation of policymakers will be willing to tackle the hard issues and genuinely transform what public safety looks like in America.
Udi Ofer is the John L. Weinberg Visiting Professor and Lecturer of Public and International Affairs and founding director of the Policy Advocacy Clinic at Princeton SPIA. He is the former Deputy National Political Director of the ACLU.
Laurence Ralph is a Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University and the Director of Center on Transnational Policing.