By: Malik Savage
Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man who lived in Memphis, Tennessee, was brutally assaulted and ultimately killed by five Memphis Police Department officers. The incident has reignited debate over the decades-long issue of police brutality, especially in the newer age of video and social media. After being captured on film by police body cameras and a nearby pole camera, footage of the encounter spread like wildfire on the news and social media. But what complicates this case is that all five officers involved in the killing were also Black: Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills, Emmitt Martin, Justin Smith, and Tadarrius Bean.
This cuts against the routine narrative of excessive, targeted police violence simply being the result of individual or interpersonal racism; in other words, the “bad apples” in a good system. After George Floyd’s death at the hands of officer Derek Chauvin, then-National Security Advisor for the Trump Administration Robert C. O’Brien took to CNN to say, “We have got great law enforcement officers, not the few bad apples, like the officer that killed George Floyd. But we got a few bad apples that have given law enforcement a bad name; 99.9 percent of these guys are heroes. […] I think they’re the minority. […] and we need to root them out.”
The danger of this argument not only lies in its dismissiveness of the issue, but also in its shift of blame. In his statement, O’Brien had no issue seeing that Chauvin be blamed for Floyd’s death, but while personal accountability is especially important, it can remove focus from the bigger picture: the system. If one only focuses on the individual, nothing else changes. The idea that these cases of excessive police violence are incidental encourage complacency in small steps toward progress. The firings and arrests of these officers does offer a sense of justice, but it doesn’t dismantle the system that produced them. It is not only necessary that we remove the bad apples, but that we also chop down the tree responsible for their initial growth.
Newer cops who join the force are compelled, if not trained, to assimilate into that police culture, pushing their limits of authority to the extreme. But the officers who killed Tyre Nichols were not new; all five had been employed in the Memphis Police Department since 2020 (Haley and Bean), 2018 (Martin and Smith), and 2017 (Mills). These are notions embedded into an officer’s psyche early into their career, so consequences only propagate as time goes on.
This span of consequence from police culture—from the direct permissiveness of violence to an overall lack of accountability—calls for public action. For insulation to be disrupted, the force must come from outside. A way in which individuals can help disrupt this is to watch the videos that are released of these encounters in order to combat the policing culture that allows excessive violence to pervade and go unpunished. However, the funnel through which the video is being seen is an important caveat. In today’s age, the spread of misinformation runs rampant on the Internet, and spreads well beyond the heart-wrenching genre of unequivocal police violence footage, admitting space for false narratives. On the opposite end of the spectrum, social media—especially Twitter—allows for videos to be uploaded with very little to no context, so people are inclined to make uninformed judgments. This is also harmful to the cause of dismantling the police system.
One sound way of receiving information regarding police encounters is through visual investigations and articles, such as coverage by the New York Times. Robin Stein, Alexander Cardia, and Natalie Reneau’s “71 Commands in 13 Minutes” is an article which analyzed the videos released of Nichols’s encounter, offering detailed information and context necessary to form illuminated judgments, all without even having to watch it. The Times has also released investigative coverage on the cases of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery. When researching such disputed information, it is important to make the distinction between whether it is being distributed with the intention to enlighten, or to push a particular agenda.
Although difficult, this is how the system can be worked against from outside. An institution designed for public safety cannot be allowed to operate largely in private, especially in such a culture of protecting and promoting officers prone to violence.
To contact this writer, email Muse Newspaper at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Headline photo credit goes to Gerald Herbert for the Dallas Morning News.