Last weekend in Memphis, five police officers were indicted for second-degree murder of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols after they escalated a traffic stop into a “disregard of basic human rights” — to quote Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis.Two additional police officers have been taken off duty, and three fire department employees have been fired for their actions related to Nichols’ death.
Chief Davis has emphasized the importance of reforms to prevent this kind of loss of life — de-escalation training, front-end evaluations to ensure that departments hire the right people, and officers’ duty to exercise care and regard in all situations.
Responsibility falls on law enforcement leaders like Chief Davis to implement reforms that are known to work and be selective about who earns the privilege to wear a badge.
As one chief recently said at a U.S. Conference of Mayors event, “I’d rather hire no officer than the wrong officer.”
That should be a universal standard.
City leaders can also add a critical voice to the nationwide chorus calling for effective reforms that will place needed limits on unnecessarily aggressive policing and help prevent recurring patterns of brutality while building community safety and trust.
At the same time, we can’t ignore the responsibility of departmental and city leadership in setting and implementing strategies that led to this tragic moment. In response to a rise in violence, city leaders in Memphis embarked on a policing strategy that included putting inexperienced officers in plain clothes and unmarked cars to aggressively enforce the law, including at times relatively minor offenses, on an ominously named “elite” unit — SCORPION. From Los Angeles to Baltimore, the history of policing is filled with stories of such street teams engaging in excessive force and other misconduct unless members are carefully selected and closely supervised. Future investigations will bring any shortcomings to light, but now is another moment for law enforcement leaders, mayors, and state legislators to take the lead.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, wisely said that Memphis needs to “take a hard look at misconduct and failure that has occurred within this unit.”
He is correct in identifying the role that city leaders have in setting the direction and priorities of their police department. However, such a review cannot be limited to just one specialized unit and instead must address policies and practices across a police agency. The state can also play a decisive role in setting standards for hiring, officer certification, and professional policing. We are encouraged that earlier this month bills were introduced to strengthen accountability in Tennessee by lawmakers from both political parties.
In fact, we’re seeing these sorts of measures introduced all across the country. A National Council of State Legislatures database supported by Arnold Ventures has tracked thousands of policing reform bills proposed in all 50 states and Washington D.C. since 2020.
But more can and must be done.
Federal accountability measures — including use-of-force standards — can set a model for local departments. Yet those policies need to be implemented effectively.
New accountability measures are being implemented at the state level, some even with support from police unions. Yet unions still need to recognize their role in maintaining police legitimacy.
Meanwhile, Arnold Ventures is working to address key structural barriers to accountability, such as use of force standards, data collection and transparency requirements, and officer discipline through state licensure and decertification of officers who commit misconduct. With support from Arnold Ventures, the Policing Project at NYU School of Law has created model statutes to help state legislators develop meaningful bills.
Our work will continue until all communities know with confidence that police will treat them with reverence for life and dignity, with respect for the Constitution and human rights, and that officers and departments will be held accountable when they fall short.