Opinion The police killing in Memphis is a reminder we must change policing
America desperately needs to rethink its approach to policing — it’s a shame that we started that rethinking in 2020 but then stopped because of politics.
The killing of Tyre Nichols by five officers in Memphis was an egregious example of police brutality, resulting in unusually fast and serious consequences. The officers have been fired and charged with several offenses, including second-degree murder. But those firings and charges are not a sign that the system is working. A man was killed by the designated officers of the state, those who are supposed to protect life. Driving recklessly, as Nichols allegedly did, and running away from police should not result in death at the hands of officials representing the government in a nation that claims to be the world’s greatest democracy. This is an atrocity.
The five officers were all Black, as was Nichols — as is Memphis’s police chief. That doesn’t make this situation less bad — or unrelated to racism. The problem, as Black Lives Matter activists have been saying for a decade, isn’t that individual officers hate Black people or other minorities. It’s that America’s police departments deploy and train their officers to view everyday citizens as either threats to the officers’ safety or disruptions to an orderly society — resulting in altercations escalating needlessly into killings.
So more than 1,000 Americans are killed by police each year, far more than the number of people executed through the death penalty (around 20), the official process by which the government can kill someone in the United States. That process, unlike a police killing, allows numerous opportunities for appeal. The majority of those killed by the police are White, since about 60 percent of Americans overall are. But because policing often targets those who are poor or who are considered by our society to be nuisances, Black people are much more likely than those from other ethnic and racial groups to be killed by the police.
Targeting people with perceived lower status, and being overly aggressive toward them, seems to be embedded in policing, at least in the United States. So even Democratic-leaning cities that regularly announce their commitment to racial equality, such as Chicago, stop drivers for speeding at higher rates in neighborhoods where there are larger populations of Black and Latino residents.Nearly all of the high-profile police killings of the last decade have happened in cities led by Democrats (Louisville, Minneapolis), and in some of those places (Baltimore) the Democratic leaders are Black.
That these problems are so widespread is why activists in 2020 started loudly calling for defunding or even abolishing the police. It’s not that they hate police officers or don’t care about crime. It’s that the safest neighborhoods in the United States usually aren’t packed with cops but with well-off people who aren’t committing crimes, because, say, they have an untreated mental illness or can’t afford food. Police aren’t the only or even best way to create public safety. And putting more cops on the street often leads to more unnecessary stops, harassment and, at times, officer killings of civilians.
There doesn’t seem to be a way to “reform” the police out of these bad practices. Officers often obstruct attempts at oversight. Getting the police under civilian control — and not killing people — may require drastically reducing the number of officers and their powers, or creating entirely new public safety agencies led by non-cops to replace existing police departments. So America should be actively considering those ideas, if not already implementing them.
All of that will sound familiar if you lived in the United States in the months after George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police. The idea that the United States needed a fundamental rethinking of policing became mainstream. Then-candidate Joe Biden suggested that federal funding to police departments should be tied to them maintaining some “standards of decency and honorableness.” Then-candidate Kamala D. Harris questioned additional spending on policing. Former president Barack Obama called for the country to “reimagine” policing.
That public conversation has largely disappeared. What happened? Many Republican officials were uncomfortable with the Floyd protests, which were a mass of young, left-leaning people demanding major changes to American society and attacking the police, who are disproportionately White, male and conservative. So Republicans started casting the protests as simply rioting. And in red states, they passed laws limiting the ability of Democratic-controlled cities to change their policing practices.
The Republicans’ posture seems to have made Democrats such as Biden fearful that they were too aligned with the protests, and that would hurt electorally. So even before the 2020 elections, he and other Democrats were backtracking from their support for police reforms. (That wasn’t politically necessary — an extensive, recently released study concludes that the activism after Floyd’s killing moved some voters to back Democratic candidates and toward more liberal stances on racial issues.)
Nor was it just fear of the GOP that moved the Democrats away from leaning into policing changes. After all, most policing happens at the city level — where Democrats are fairly dominant and don’t have to worry about swing voters. But urban politics in America today has intense divides between more centrist and more progressive Democrats. The centrists tend to be more aligned with the police, the progressives with activists such as those who were on the streets after Floyd died.
To weaken the left, centrist Democrats in urban areas such as New York Mayor Eric Adams spent much of 2021 and 2022 undermining efforts at reining in the police, since that movement was linked to progressives.
Murder rates went up in 2020 across the country. Many criminologists argued that this was in part because of the closures of businesses, mass layoffs and other disruptions caused by the covid-19 pandemic — and that murders would decrease as life returned to normal. (And they have.)
But Democrats such as Adams suggested that crime was going up because officers felt demonized by the Floyd protests and were wary of doing their jobs and because the few reforms that had occurred went too far. And since crime was high, the centrists’ arguments resonated with voters, who elected police-aligned officials such as Adams.
Two and a half years after Floyd was killed, the bipartisan effort to blunt the movement to change policing has succeeded. What a terrible success. More Americans were killed by police in 2022 than any year over the past decade. This year has started with another horrible incident, Nichols’s killing in Memphis. Even modest efforts to change policing have stalled. Led by the sitting president, the Democratic Party, the one supposed to be on the side of poor people and Black people, has spent the past two years venerating the police and discrediting those who rightly see policing as flawed and in need of change.
Our policing system is broken. Everyone knows this. Politicians in both parties should do whatever they can to stop those killings from happening, instead of playing politics with life-or-death situations."