Truth, Inspiration, Hope.

Tyre Nichols Case Reveals Erosion in Policing Standards

Neil Campbell
Neil lives in Canada and writes about society and politics.
Published: February 1, 2023
Tyre Nichols beating death reveals the degradation of policing and recruitment standards.
A photo of a candle vigil for Tyre Nichols at Regency Community Skatepark on Jan. 30, 2023 in Sacramento, California. Video of the beating of Nichols at the hands of five Memphis PD officers has cast light on the erosion of policing and recruitment standards over the years. (Image: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The release of video footage of the arrest of Tyre Nichols by Memphis Police, which ultimately resulted in the 29-year-old’s death and a laundry list of charges against the officers involved, has shed light on a serious erosion of policing standards over the last several years.

Just a traffic stop

The story unfolded on the evening of Jan. 7 when Nichols was detained by Memphis PD during a traffic stop.

A Jan. 11 report on the events by USA Today affiliate Commercial Appeal chronicled that police “said a confrontation ensued as they approached the vehicle driven by Nichols, who then ran from the scene.”

“A second confrontation happened when officers tried to arrest Nichols, who was detained,” the article added.

The outlet claimed that Nichols began “complaining about shortness of breath” and was taken by ambulance to a local hospital where he was listed in critical condition.

The same day, the District Attorney for Shelby County had already stated a use of force investigation had been launched. Meanwhile, Memphis PD placed the officers involved in the arrest on paid leave, Commercial Appeal reported.

Nichols remained hospitalized in critical condition through Jan. 9 and then passed away on Jan. 10 “as a result of the injuries sustained during his arrest,” the outlet added.

As protests surrounding Nichols’s death escalated, Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis and Mayor Jim Strickland told media on Jan. 17 that police body cam footage would soon be released, according to the Associated Press.

At the time, the only cause of death alluded to was that, “Relatives have accused police of beating him and causing him to have a heart attack,” while “Authorities have said Nichols…experienced a medical emergency,” AP added.

By Jan. 20, five officers involved in the arrest had been terminated by Memphis PD, a Newsweek article stated.

It wasn’t until Jan. 26 that a Grand Jury Indictment was unsealed, which levied a slew of charges against the quintet, including second degree murder, aggravated kidnapping, aggravated assault, official misconduct, and official oppression, according to Memphis television news WHIO.

A beatdown

Just one day later, the public saw the reason for the charges when Memphis Police released footage taken by a trio of police body cameras and one pole-mounted surveillance camera just a day later on Jan. 27.

A CNBC composite of the four videos and summary of the footage showed that a compliant Nichols was removed from his vehicle in an aggressive gunpoint arrest as officers demanded he lie on the ground next to his vehicle.

In the first 65 seconds of the video, Nichols is seated on the ground next to his vehicle on his side by officers as one holds a taser against his leg, another pins his right arm to the concrete, and another officer’s arm holds Nichols’s free arm in an armbar as officers continue to scream at Nichols to “lie on the ground.”

One officer is heard saying “You lie on the ground or I’m gonna break ‘yo teeth.”

Shortly after, a struggle ensues, obscured by blurring camera motion due to filming in the dark, Nichols breaks free, abandons his vehicle, and takes off running.

One of the officers appears to have been caught in the crossfire of an attempted use of pepper spray, while the officer with the taser missed his shot.

A second clip manifests at a second location and shows officers tackling Nichols next to a car before an obscured scuffle ensues as he screams out in pain and appears to call for his mother.

A third clip appears to show the same scene from a separate officer’s body cam, showing two officers on top of Nichols raining a flurry of punches upon his face as the camera officer deploys pepper spray.

Over the course of the next 30 seconds, officers continue to shout “give me your hands” while not attempting to restrain or cuff Nichols.

Another officer appears and begins shouting the same, while the camera wearer continually empties his can of pepper spray into Nichols’ eyes. 

The filming officer then appears to move away from the scene and behind the parked vehicle, pointing his body and its camera towards an empty residential street as shouts from the altercation can be heard.

But the most damning footage is from the pole-mounted surveillance camera. 

Although the first batch of footage provided by CNBC from the camera only showed a handcuffed and limp Nichols being dragged and thrown to sit up against the parked car, a second batch published on Jan. 28 by CNN shows the scenes the third officer’s body camera was kept from recording.

In the unredacted pole camera footage, one officer is shown walking straight towards a Nichols writhing in pain on the ground before directly kicking him in the face two separate times.

Yet another officer arrives, deploys a police baton, and then begins striking Nichols while two other police restrained his arms.

Nichols is then brought to his feet by the officers, who hold his hands behind his back. The man who originally delivered the kicks then stands in front of Nichols and punches him in the face five times as Nichols’ hands are restrained.

The fifth blow sent Nichols to the ground.

Specialized rookies

The announcement of charges against the officers was accompanied by an admission by Chief Davis and District Attorney Steve Mulroy that the quintet was part of the Memphis PD’s “SCORPION” unit.

In a secondary article, CNBC stated that SCORPION was a cell of the Department’s Organized Crime Unit and consisted of four 10-member teams of officers.

SCORPION is an acronym for “The Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods.”

The problem, Memphis PD Sergeant Mark LeSure, who retired in 2021, was paraphrased in comments to CNBC as stating, “A large number of relatively inexperienced officers’ being put on specialized units as a lot of the police force started leaving in recent years” about his time before leaving the force.

“Rookies were getting put on specialized units where they had no business being,” LeSure was directly quoted as saying, and was further paraphrased as stating that colleagues he maintains contact with at the Department have told him that SCORPION had a self-described “zero tolerance” approach, which LeSure was quoted as defining as they “do what they can to arrest people.”

According to CNBC, all five officers were hired between 2017 and 2020 and aged between 24 and 32.

Degrading standards

One of the officers, a 30-year-old, joined Memphis PD in 2020 after a stint as a corrections officer in Shelby County.

In a third article, CNBC stated that in 2016, the man was sued in civil court over the beating of an inmate. The suit alleged that a trio of corrections officers had beaten him until he was unconscious, with one officer smashing his face into a sink.

CNBC reported, “The suit was dismissed in 2018 after a judge ruled that [the man] had not properly served one of the defendants with a summons,” on account of filing without an attorney and remaining “in federal custody at the time and unable to complete all the paperwork.”

One 24-year-old officer charged in the Nichols case, hired in 2020, had no other work experience besides “a fast-food restaurant in Mississippi and also worked for AT&T in Memphis,” CNBC stated, adding that the man spent four years at the University of Mississippi studying criminal justice and law enforcement.

Two other officers, aged 30 and 32, appeared to have no work experience, according to CNBC’s investigation. All the outlet was able to find is that both men had played football, one for a college, and the other for their high school.

The curricula vitae of the officers charged in Nichols’s death may manifest from a long-standing difficulty Memphis PD has faced in recruiting new talent.

In 2018, Action5 News reported that the Department had lowered its recruitment standards from requiring an associate’s degree or 54 semester hours of college to five years of full time work experience and a high school diploma.

In February of 2022, the Memphis House of Representatives sought to change residency requirements for police and firefighters to remove the stipulation that they live in Shelby County, which Chief Davis appeared at a subcommittee hearing to support.

Action5 News reported at the time that Memphis PD also significantly raised its compensation, offering recruits a $15,000 signing bonus, a $10,000 relocation bonus, and a starting salary of $45,623. 

According to Oct. 12, 2022 data published by Tennessee newspaper The Center Square, Memphis was the fifth-largest police force in America with 2,027 officers on payroll in 2021.

That figure, when adjusted by population, made Memphis the 18th most policed city in the country with 3.12 officers for every 1,000 people.

The largest force in the country was the New York Police Department with 35,047 officers, amounting to 4.14 cops per 1,000 people.

The most policed city in America was Washington, D.C., with 5.34 officers per 1,000 people and 3,575 on roster in total.

A May 12, 2021 article by Fox 13 Memphis stated nonetheless that the force was still short 400 officers compared to the manpower the force desired, and added that it was important to hire more non-white personnel.

“Black people make up 65% of the population in Memphis, and Black officers are 56% of the Memphis Police Department,” Fox stated, adding, “Everyone does agree that more Black and brown cops are needed if true change is to occur.”

The article also cited a study, which it paraphrased as claiming that “Black and Hispanic officers use force far less frequently than white male officers.”