What Tyre Nichols’ death at the hands of Black officers says about race in policing

The cycle of police violence and protests in America has been told so often as a tale of white officers shooting black men that three words – “Black lives matter” – have become a global shorthand.

But the death of Tire Nichols has thrown the narrative into question.

The 29-year-old FedEx employee – who died after being stopped by Memphis police and treated with tasers, pepper spray and severe beatings – was black. So did the five police officers charged with murdering him.

The Memphis Police Chief who convicted and fired the officers is a black woman. And more than half of the police forces in Memphis, a majority black city, are black.

Making law enforcement more racially diverse has long been touted as a way to improve community relations and reduce police violence against racial minorities. But as the events in Memphis show, that doesn’t always have to be the case. Experts studying race, policing, and the use of force say the research is limited and suggests at best that officer race may matter less than many Americans might think.

“The connection between race and policing is very complicated,” said Christy Lopez, a law professor at Georgetown University who led the Justice Department team investigating the Ferguson, Missouri, police force. “There is no panacea to having black officers.”

Some experts say the issue leading to such police violence against Nichols, who died in a hospital three days after the Jan. 7 beatings, is less an issue of race and more deeply rooted in the police force as a whole.

A frame from a video shows Tire Nichols being caned by five Memphis police officers.

A frame from video released Jan. 27 by the City of Memphis shows Tire Nichols during a caning by the Memphis Police Department.

(Associated Press)

“Here’s a dirty little secret: Studies show that black officers are just as brutal, and sometimes even more brutal, against black bodies than their white counterparts,” said Duane Loynes Sr., assistant professor of Urban Studies and Africana Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis. whose research focuses on the relationship between black communities and the police.

“If a system is problematic,” Loynes said, “it doesn’t matter who you plug into it. You get the same result.”

In a 2017 study, Indiana University professors examined police shooting data from the Mapping Police Violence advocacy group and a separate dataset from the Washington Post. They compared the data to diversity information from police service roles in the 100 largest cities. Then they checked everything with broader numbers on racial demographics and shootings.

Their conclusion: “Increasing the proportion of blacks in the force does not appear to be an effective strategy to reduce police homicides of black citizens in most major cities.”

There were caveats. The analysis looked only at shootings, and mostly focused on just two years, 2014 and 2015. In 2014, Ferguson police shot and killed Michael Brown, sparking widespread protests and propelling law enforcement reform to the forefront of American politics.

The report’s conclusions focused on divisions that began with smaller black representation and expanded it. At least 30% to 35% of a department would need to be Black to reach “critical mass,” researchers wrote, since “individuals may only begin to act in ways that help other minorities…when they are empowered by a large one.” enough number.”

Memphis Police Director Cerelyn Davis speaks during an interview with the Associated Press.

Memphis Police Superintendent Cerelyn Davis fired and convicted five officers involved in the Tire Nichols caning.

(Gerald Herbert/Associated Press)

In the Memphis Police Department, of the nearly 2,000 commissioned officers, 58% are black, 37% are white, and 3% are Hispanic, according to the city government. The proportion of black officers has increased, up 2 percentage points since 2021. The department has a long history of a heavy black police presence and black leadership, according to archived local news articles and experts interviewed by The Times.

Lopez, who led the Justice Department’s investigation into policing practices in Chicago, New Orleans and Los Angeles, said even with “majority and minority” police departments, police violence and racial issues could remain.

“Yes, it makes a difference, and yes, race matters, but the issues with policing are much greater,” Lopez said. “Black cops can be subject to the same stereotypes as white cops. They can be pressured to conform, to be ‘more blue than black’ to prove they are more loyal to the badge and don’t show favoritism.”

“We’re fooling ourselves”

“In the United States, when I’ve walked through communities speaking to residents about policing, they’ve often asked for more black officers to sort things out,” Lopez said. “But we’re deluding ourselves if we think race is the only answer.”

Experts say flawed public perceptions of racial dynamics in policing are only part of the problem. Another big hurdle is data.

“The data — or lack thereof — is part of the problem in identifying patterns and solutions related to race and policing,” said William Sousa, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, who studies the use of force under the police.

“Getting a national database on the use of deadly force was an incredibly difficult undertaking; it just doesn’t exist at the federal level. It then becomes more difficult when you look at the ‘less lethal’ power or race.”

“There is well-known data showing that black neighborhoods tend to be more policing” and that blacks are more likely to experience violent encounters with police officers compared to other racial groups, Sousa said.

Only in the last decade, following the rise of Black Lives Matter and the greater attention given to police reform in government, universities and police training academies, has deeper research come to light.

In a 2017 analysis examining data on thousands of shootings in Houston, Los Angeles, Boston and nine other major cities, Harvard University economist Roland G. Fryer found that black and Hispanic people accounted for at least 50% experience violence more often when they are hit by the police.

What was more difficult to decipher in many studies was the role of officer race.

Such interactions can be difficult to analyze: suspects’ races are routinely recorded by police, but officers’ races are not. That leaves analysts grappling with image searches, media reports, and guesswork based on names.

In the absence of comprehensive federal data on police shootings or other uses of deadly force, the work has been left to professors, journalists, and activists, drawing on local police departments, media reports, and several local and federal agencies to try to reach conclusions.

Sometimes they can get it wrong.

In 2019, a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences analyzed police shootings and the race of those shot using data from 2015. It found no “evidence of anti-Black or anti-Hispanic differences in the use of violence by the police in all shootings.”

But in 2020, the authors withdrew their study, saying they had been “careless in describing the conclusions that could be drawn from our data.”

A brutal blow

Video of Nichols’ encounter with police was released in Memphis on Friday night, showing officers beating the man as he lay on the ground. It also showed the father of a 4-year-old calling out for his own mother over and over again in agonized screams. Everything happened about 80 meters from his house.

RowVaughn Wells, Nichols’ mother, said she had to stop watching when she tried to view the officers’ body cam video. She said the officer’s race doesn’t matter.

“It’s not about the color of the cop’s skin. We don’t care if it’s black, white, pink or purple. What they did was wrong,” she said at a news conference this week. “And what they are doing to black communities is wrong. We don’t worry about the policeman’s race. We are concerned about the behavior of the police officers.”

Rodney Wells, Nichols’ stepfather, said Friday before the video was released that his family was “pleased” with how quickly the officers were charged. They were released just over a week after Nichols’ death and charged with second-degree murder and other offenses after 16 days.

“What I see here is transparency and accountability, which we don’t always see,” Brenda Goss Andrews, president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, said in an interview.

“We’re always looking at race so quickly that we lose sight of the fact that a person died,” said Andrews, a 30-year Detroit police officer. “It seems that the first thing we look at, before even realizing what happened in cases like this, is the race of the people involved.”

Still, experts studying policing have also questioned whether race played a role in the officers’ quick dismissals and charges.

Charlene Shroulote-Durán, who teaches criminal justice at New Mexico State University, said that when white officers are involved, she hears reactions like, “‘Oh, they feared for their lives,’ or ‘Let’s wait until we have the whole story.’ . or ‘Let’s see, wait till we see the video.’”

In cases involving white officers, she said: “There’s always this kind of pause where they’re put on administrative leave and then there’s an investigation. But here they were fired immediately.”

Rashawn Ray, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland who studies race in police-civil society relationships, said research has shown that black officers are more likely than white officers to be reprimanded for similar policy violations and are less likely to be promoted.

“What maybe needs to happen nationally,” he said, “is make sure white officials are subject to the same level of accountability as these five black officials in Memphis.”

Times contributor Libor Jany provided coverage from Memphis.

https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2023-01-27/tyre-nichols-memphis-police-race What Tyre Nichols’ death at the hands of Black officers says about race in policing

Alley Einstein

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