Police Diversity Won't Stop Police Brutality

It was not a shocking development that the five Memphis police officers who beat Tyre Nichols to death were also Black. Richard Pryor commented on this phenomenon back in 1971:

"In my neighborhood, cops were dangerous, because we had, like, 'I Spy' cops. You know, white cop and Black cop worked together. And the Black cop had to do more shit to keep his job. He had to whoop more [Black people] than the white cop." Pryor would then act as the Black cop kicking a Black civilian: "I ain't gonna lose my pension, [n-word]."


Race is a rigid form of classism, and the police consider themselves a separate class. "We all bleed blue" is a popular slogan, meant to suggest there is no racial prejudice among the ranks. However, that lovely homily serves only to distance police officers from the people they supposedly protect and serve. Once they put on the uniform, they are no longer "one of them."

Just months prior to George Floyd's murder, US News & World Report addressed the question of whether "hiring more Black officers" was "the key to reducing police violence." Writer Jennifer Cobbina interviewed residents of Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, and her research suggested that "increased representation might not solve the problem."

Communities United Against Police Brutality, a Twin Cities-based organization, said in 2020, "Throughout our research, we have never encountered a shred of evidence that requiring or incentivizing police officers to live in the communities in which they work has any positive effect on the quality of policing."

Nonetheless, well-meaning politicians have pursued residency requirements for police officers. Kenyatta Johnson, a member of Philadelphia's City Council, said, "It's a plus if we have officers who live in the city. They grew up in the city. They have a stake in the city because it’s home. It goes a long way to building community trust."

But more Black cops don't turn cities into Mayberry. The system is what it is and before an officer receives their badge and gun, they must fully become part of that system.

Tamar Manasseh, who runs a community anti-violence initiative called Mothers Against Senseless Killing in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood, insists, "You’d be less likely to crack a head if you know where they live and they know where you live. People who eat dinner with each other don’t kill each other." Unfortunately, domestic violence statistics would seemingly disprove this theory.

Alexis Hoag-Fordjour, a professor at Brooklyn Law School and co-director of the Center for Criminal Justice, has practiced law in Memphis for a decade. She agrees that the race of the officers who killed Nichols is not as relevant as the problem with policing in general.

"Policing in this country is focused on control, subordination and violence — regardless of the race of the officer," she said. "Society views black people as inherently dangerous and criminal ... even if you have black people in the position of law enforcement, that doesn't mean that proposition goes away."

This observation is arguably one of the more controversial ones from journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who draws a direct line from modern policing to antebellum slave patrols.

During a 2020 interview, Hannah-Jones said, "Slave patrols were put in place to deputize white Americans, to police enslaved communities, to ensure that enslaved people were only in the places they were allowed, to put down slave insurrections, and these slave patrols had the right to stop and question any black person, enslaved or free, whom they deemed to be suspicious." That is arguably the foundation for "stop and frisk."

She goes into further detail about this in Hulu's "1619 Project" documentary. Rightwingers reflexively took a "how very dare you!” response to her argument, insisting that US policing's origins are rightly traced back to Britain and have nothing to do with slavery. This perhaps deliberately ignores the shocking militarization of US police and the "warrior cop" mentality, which is both toxic and lucrative.

Former police officer and law professor Seth Stoughton wrote, "[Cops] are taught that they live in an intensely hostile world. A world that is, quite literally, gunning for them. Death, they are told, is constantly a single, small misstep away." The civilian public only tolerates this training if they are also conditioned to view Black people, especially young men, as inherently dangerous.

According to the Washington Post, the five officers who killed Nichols were part of the Memphis Police Department’s SCORPION Unit, which the city is now shutting down. Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis, who's Black, oversaw the REDDOG drug unit in Atlanta. That was also shut down. (Davis was fired, then reinstated, for an unrelated issue before moving to the Memphis police department.) Neither unit's name was encouraging. Personally, the BUNNY unit would make me feel safer.

SCORPION was created in 2021 — yes, after George Floyd's murder and a supposed "racial reckoning" — and designed to "saturate high-crime areas with police officers." The unit's dehumanizing acronym stands for "Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods." Obviously, no real "peace" was restored to Tyre Nichols's neighborhood.

[USA Today / US News & World Report / BBC / Vox]

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Stephen Robinson

Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. Once, he wrote a novel called “Mahogany Slade,” which you should read or at least buy. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."


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