The Problem With Police Reform Is That Police Already Know It's Bad To Beat People To Death
On Friday morning, the City of Memphis released the footage of four police officers beating 29-year-old Tyre Nichols to death after pulling him over for "reckless driving" (which has not yet actually been substantiated).
I haven't seen the footage. I can't. I tried and I had to turn it off. So here's a description from someone at NPR who did.
In the videos, officers are seen dragging Nichols from his car and shouting profanities throughout the confrontation. An officer tries to deploy a Taser at Nichols and then begins to chase him on foot. "I'm just trying to go home," Nichols is heard saying. Later, officers are seen repeatedly kicking, punching and using a baton to strike Nichols as he lies on the ground. At one point he's heard yelling "Mom."
This case is a little different than some of the 80 million other cases of police officers beating Black men to death. For one, the officers involved — Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith — were Black themselves. For another, they were arrested and charged immediately and no excuses have been made.
There's a lot going on here. Were the officers immediately arrested because they were Black and there's no Thin Blue Line for Black officers? Or was it because those in charge had no inclination to give the police a pass for the brutal murder of a young man? Because they.have a progressive prosecutor who takes police brutality seriously? It's probably a combination of all of these things to some degree or another. The aftermath has been handled as well as it can possibly be handled — but it shouldn't have happened in the first place.
It's worth noting that the Memphis police department enacted a series of reform measures back in 2020 following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. It was part of a program called "8 Can't Wait" that aimed to reduce police violence by requiring certain things of police officers during stops.
- Ban chokeholds and strangleholds
- Require officers to de-escalate situations, where possible, by communicating with subjects, maintaining distance, and otherwise eliminating the need to use force.
- Require officers to give a verbal warning in all situations before using deadly force.
- Require officers to intervene and stop excessive force used by other officers and report these incidents immediately to a supervisor.
- Ban shooting at moving vehicles
- Establish a Force Continuum that restricts the most severe types of force to the most extreme situations and creates clear policy restrictions on the use of each police weapon and tactic.
- Require officers to report each time they use force or threaten to use force against civilians. Comprehensive reporting includes requiring officers to report whenever they point a firearm at someone, in addition to all other types of force.
Like most flavors of police reform, these measures presume that the police officers who kill do so only because they simply don't know what else to do, because they haven't been trained to do anything else. It presumes that they won't use a chokehold if they are told to not use chokeholds. It presumes that if we just tell police officers "Hey, stop murdering people who are no kind of actual threat to you," they will stop doing that. It assumes a certain amount of good faith that is not necessarily applicable to the kinds of police officers who kill people.
You know what the number one "deterrent" is to people committing crimes? It's not long sentences, it's not harsh prison conditions, it is certainty that they will be caught. This also applies to police officers in a systemically racist society who shoot or kill people to death.
If these officers didn't know that what they are doing is wrong in these situations, they would also do them when dealing with rich white people. They'd act the same way when television cameras are rolling. They don't. If this were the only way they knew to handle these situations, if all they needed was better training and more funding, they would never bring White mass murderers in alive. They do. Quite often, in fact. When was the last time police beat a mass murderer to death? Or a serial killer?
They know it's wrong, they do it anyway, because they think they won't get caught. They do it because power corrupts.
To be fair — reform measures are generally not meant to actually work or "do" anything, so much as they are meant to shut up some people without upsetting others too much. It costs whatever it costs to maintain the noble lie that the police keep us safe from harm, and sometimes that cost includes a body count.
It is worth, however, considering what police are actually doing — aside from beating innocent people to death. The Supreme Court says that they are not legally obligated to intervene in order to prevent a crime from happening. A study published last year found that police pretty much spend zero time responding to or solving crime and most of their time on officer-initiated traffic stops like the one that resulted in the death of Tyre Nichols.
The study, published by the advocacy group Catalyst California and the ACLU of Southern California determined that L.A. County Sheriff's Department officers spent 88 percent of their time on officer-initiated traffic stops — and only 11 percent of the hours they spent doing that had anything to do with "reasonable suspicion of a crime." It also found that the Sacramento sheriff's department spent 3/4 of their time pulling people over for stops that ended in warnings.
Studies have repeatedly shown that not only do routine traffic stops not make us safer in general, they are not even the most efficient way to deal with speeding and other actual driving-related issues. A 2022 study determined that police have killed nearly 600 people at these traffic stops since 2017.
Ironically, they are also very dangerous for the police themselves. A logical person might consider that cutting down on these traffic stops might make us all a whole lot safer. It's one thing when people are drunk driving and swerving all over the road, but that is not actually going to be the case in most traffic stops, and it certainly shouldn't be the vast majority of what armed police officers are doing with their time.
Other research has shown that police only "solve" two percent of all violent crimes, which is impressive given that we also have the largest prison population in the world. One would have to imagine that this would not be the case if they were doing such a spectacular job of keeping us safe.
I know people don't like to talk about alternatives to policing and want to believe that there must be some way to tweak the system in order to make it do the things we want it to do without doing the things we don't want it to do. They want it to be individual bad apples, they want it to be individual racism and prejudice, they want it to be a lack of training or a lack of proper funding — because as big as those problems are, they feel a lot more manageable than considering that it's the system itself that is bad. That maybe policing in the form it currently exists in is bad even for the police themselves — that perhaps it turns them into people they might not otherwise be. That in many cases the power goes to their heads and comes out in a way that hurts people and leads to situations like this one. That maybe we are creating monsters, and no amount of superficial reform is going to change that.
It would be really great if we could just calm down and look at things logically — look at what actually works and what doesn't, what we need the police for and what we don't, and consider where our money would be better spent in terms of public safety. How do we create a world where this doesn't happen?
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse