By Wendell Griffen
Again, police officers have killed an unarmed civilian in the United States. Again, the slain unarmed civilian was a person of color.
On January 7, 2023, Tyre Nichols, an unarmed civilian Black man, died in Memphis, Tennessee because police officers detained him, harassed him, terrorized him, cursed him, beat him, tried to electrocute him, poisoned him, kicked him, threw him to the ground like he was trash, and then propped him beside an unmarked police vehicle without providing any first aid or other assistance for more than twenty minutes. Tyre Nichols died because emergency medical technicians did not rush to aid him, but let him suffer.
Tyre Nichols is dead because policing in the United States is deadly to people of color, all the time, anywhere, on purpose.
After video footage was publicized by Memphis officials of the brutal, cruel, deliberate, vicious, and unprovoked attack and beating Tyre Nichols suffered from members of a roving street crime unit known as SCORPION (for Street Crime Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods), five Memphis police officers were fired. After that video footage was released they were charged with second-degree murder. After that video footage was released, other Memphis police, fire, and emergency medical responders were fired, reassigned, and investigated. The SCORPION unit has been permanently disbanded.
None of those things happened immediately after Tyre Nichols was beaten senseless on January 7. None of those things happened on January 10, when Tyre Nichols died because five police officers, who are Black by the way, killed him. None of those things happened until Memphis political and police leaders – people who created, equipped, trained, licensed, tasked, and set the SCORPION unit loose in Memphis – were ready to release the video footage, three weeks after Tyre Nichols died, showing how police officers terrorized, kidnapped, tortured, and murdered him.
Now, as always happens when police kill unarmed non-threatening Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian-Pacific, and low income White civilians in the United States, commentators, pundits, politicians, and business and community leaders are talking again about “police reform.” Do not believe them. They have been talking about “police reform” for generations.
Before you are fooled by the announcement that the Memphis Police Department has disbanded the SCORPION unit that deployed the cops who murdered Tyre Nichols, consider the following excerpt from page 150 of the 1968 Kerner Commission Report.
Although police administrators may take steps to eliminate misconduct by individual police officers, many departments have adopted patrol practices which in the words of one commentator, have “…replaced harassment by individual patrolmen with harassment by entire departments.”
These practices, sometimes known as “aggressive preventive patrol,” take a number of forms, but invariably they involve a large number of police-citizen contacts initiated by police rather than in response to a call for help or service. One such practice utilizes a roving task force which moves into high-crime districts without prior notice and conducts intensive, often indiscriminate, street stops and searches…
In some cities, aggressive patrol is not limited to special task forces. The beat patrolman himself is expected to participate and to file a minimum number of “stop and frisk” or field interrogation reports for each tour of duty… [see, https://www.hud.gov/sites/dfiles/FHEO/documents/kerner_commission_full_report.pdf] [Emphasis added]
That statement was published in 1968, 55 years ago. It was known when current leaders of police departments in cities, towns, and communities across the United States were born, when they were began working as police officers, and long before they became police department leaders. And it was known to political, civic, legal, social, and religious leaders who continued support for the “aggressive police patrol” practices of SCORPION and other police units across the United States.
So do not be fooled about “police reform” talk. The Memphis SCORPION unit was no aberration. It was – like countless others like it – devised, designed, equipped, trained, dedicated, and deployed to be a mobile licensed lethal occupation force to dominate neighborhoods where people like Tyre Nichols live, work, socialize, and are ultimately terrorized and slain. “Aggressive preventive patrol” tactics are part of police doctrine and standard operating procedures that always eventually result in harm to people like Tyre Nichols.
Do not be fooled. This society decided long ago to terrorize people of color as a way of population control. White bankers, merchants, planters, industrialists, preachers, educators, and privileged families set up policing from the beginning to dominate and control people of color and White workers so privileged White people can feel “safe.” People like Tyre Nichols are abused, harassed, terrorized, and slain by police to satisfy White supremacist notions of what “safe” and “public safety” mean.
That system cannot be reformed. It must be denounced, dismantled, and discarded. The people now responsible for leading law enforcement should not be trusted to do those things, no matter what their racial, ethnic, and gender may be. People who rise to the top of a system that constantly terrorizes, abuses, and slaughters unarmed non-violent civilians will never denounce, dismantle, and discard that system.
That good work is up to the rest of us. That good work starts when each of us refuses to remain fooled, and fools, for the lie that policing in the US makes us safe.
The next time you hear someone say that policing makes US society safe, remember Tyre Nichols, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Elijah McClain, Sean Bell, Amadou Dialo, Abner Louima, Rodney King, Sandra Bland, Philando Castille, Jacob Webb, and Oscar Grant. Speak their names. Policing didn’t keep them safe. Policing ruined their lives.
We knew that long ago. It’s past time for us to stop pretending otherwise.
— Wendell Griffen is recently retired as a circuit court judge in Little Rock, Arkansas where he is also pastor of New Millennium Church. He is author of The Fierce Urgency of Prophetic Hope (Judson Press) and has written for and is a member of the board of Christian Ethics Today. He can be followed at wendelllgriffen.blogspot.com