Following Tyre Nichols’s death on January 10, three days after he was savagely beaten by five Memphis police officers, the rush to judgment on policing reform was predictable, as was President Joe Biden’s renewal of his pledge to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. Both developments will distract from efforts that could do far more to improve policing.
The Memphis officers’ actions have rightly been condemned by major police organizations, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, and the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives. It’s also hard to fathom why Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis would name the city’s street-crimes unit SCORPION, an acronym for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhood. Surely, better options existed than taking the name of a predatory arachnid.
Many other questions about the case await answers. Why did one of the officers on the scene ask the dispatcher for “any other SCORPION car,” rather than any other police car in the area? Once the officers requested backup, why didn’t a supervisor respond then, or during the wait for an ambulance, or during the 16 to 20 minutes between the medics’ arrival and their treating Nichols? Why did it take almost 25 minutes for Nichols to be placed in an ambulance? And why, considering the severity of Nichols’s injuries, didn’t a supervisor go to the hospital to verify Nichols’s admission and his condition? Equally puzzling, why was a SCORPION team patrolling near Castlegate Lane, which, based on maps, appears to be a subdivision of private homes more than 20 miles from downtown Memphis—the area in which team members would be expected to focus their crimefighting efforts?
As we await answers to these questions, five officers—Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr., and Justin Smith—have been fired and charged with second-degree murder and kidnapping, among other charges. More recently, additional officers have been relieved of duty and placed on administrative leave. The Memphis Fire Department also terminated two emergency medical technicians and a lieutenant involved in the incident.
Beyond Memphis, law enforcement is again on trial. The Congressional Black Caucus and numerous civil rights and activist organizations are calling on Biden to follow up on his promise to the Nichols family to “make a case” to Congress for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act “to get this under control.” Just as Floyd’s family attended Biden’s signing of an executive order on policing on the 2022 anniversary of Floyd’s death, Nichols’s family has accepted an invitation from Nevada representative Steven Horsford, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, to attend Biden’s State of the Union speech scheduled for February 7.
But the Floyd Act, like Biden’s 2022 executive order, which covered only federal law enforcement, is unlikely to get anything under control. The executive order’s primary accomplishment, beyond bureaucratic reforms, was to require the approximately 100,000 federal law enforcement officers to comply with regulations for body-worn cameras, rules already in effect in about half of U.S. departments, including the Memphis Police Department.
Advocates claim that the Floyd Act would go further, banning chokeholds (something a vast number of police departments have already done), creating national accountability standards for police, and eliminating qualified immunity from civil liability for misconduct (which shields not just police but all government employees). But the bill, which passed the House in March 2021 before stalling out in the Senate, mostly involves database and recordkeeping requirements. It would mandate a national police-misconduct registry that would make personal details about officers available to the public. It also includes provisions from the PRIDE Act (Police Reporting Information, Data and Evidence) and would require police departments that apply for federal grant funds to submit quarterly reports on use-of-force and racial profiling.
Civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who, with Antonio Romanucci, is representing Nichols’s family, has called on lawmakers to introduce “Tyre’s Law,” which would require fellow officers to intervene when they witness physical abuse. But this, too, has already been mandated by most states and by thousands of police departments.
At the state level, Tennessee legislators want to pass laws that will mandate bias training, limit the ability of police officers to move from one jurisdiction to another, institute ongoing mental-health evaluations, disseminate information on problem officers or those who have lied, and reevaluate the need for low-level traffic stops. Parts of this legislation echo findings from my Manhattan Institute white paper on “Wandering Cops”—that is, officers who leave one agency under a cloud of scandal but get hired elsewhere. Research suggests that wanderers rarely go far; they are more likely to seek employment within their state rather than nationally, often because their benefit to a new agency consists primarily of the money saved by not having to send them to a state-certified police academy for a second time. This is why state-level monitoring and decertifying of officers is more beneficial—and quicker and less costly to institute—than federal databases. And in many states, these measures already exist.
Most such state recordkeeping is performed by peace officer standards and training (POST) commissions. Tennessee’s POST, for instance, already has the authority to decertify officers. In 2016, the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department asked POST to decertify several officers, and in January 2023, the small town of La Vergne requested decertification for four of five officers fired for an alleged sex scandal.
One of the officers involved in Nichols’s death had a previous complaint of a brutal beating while he was a corrections officer. Since the case was dismissed on a technicality and he remained employed, it is unclear whether the Memphis Police Department was aware of this incident. Agencies, often fearful of litigation if they provide negative reviews of employees, may not share troubling information about an applicant. This reluctance explains why statewide registries and decertification are so important: instead of relying on evasive supervisory comments, a hiring agency could access an applicant’s past record on a statewide registry.
Rather than focus again on the Floyd Act, Biden should continue to encourage police departments to use American Rescue Plan funds to hire officers and improve training for new and veteran cops. The best way for the federal government to help professionalize officers and departments is to help pay for police-recruit training, thus offsetting the need to hire wandering cops, and to support POST commissions’ efforts to enhance the decertification process. If these and other statewide reforms got funded, they would likely have a far greater impact than political posturing and symbolic efforts that distract from improving recruitment, training, and retention of police officers.