Is U.S. policing in a death spiral? Yes, as long as the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols by five Memphis police officers is portrayed as a manifestation of racism. The problems underlying that horrifying episode—the recruitment crisis, lax hiring standards, and depolicing—will worsen, intensified by the very policies ostensibly adopted to prevent another such travesty. The vicious circle of rising crime and a flight from the profession will accelerate.
President Joe Biden adopted the racism narrative before much was known about the Nichols beating. Even before the videos from the officers’ body cameras had been released, Biden was blaming Nichols’s death on systemic racism. After the video release, Biden claimed that the killing was representative of what “black and brown Americans experience every single day.” He reinforced that theme in his recent State of the Union speech. “Every single time” a black child walks in the street, plays in a park, or gets into a car, Biden said, his parents rightly worry that racist cops might kill him before he makes it home. “What happened to Tyre in Memphis happens too often,” Biden alleged.
Other Democrats spread that same message, amplified by the mainstream media. According to Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), Nichols was killed by “white supremacy. Killed by America.” Blacks “live in a constant state of terror,” Bowman said in a fundraising pitch. “We feel it every day.”
That the five cops charged with Nichols’s murder were black does not refute the racism narrative, argue political and press elites. Black cops, no less than white cops, absorb the police culture of anti-black racism, the argument goes.
The idea of black anti-black racism is not nonsensical as a speculative construct. And conservatives who reflexively seize on a black officer’s race to rebut a bias charge risk legitimating the view that an officer’s whiteness creates a valid presumption of bias when a police-civilian encounter is interracial.
The only question should be: what is the actual evidence that race affected a use of force? Those who contend that racism killed Tyre Nichols have no evidence to back up their claim, so they offer a thought experiment instead: Would the five Memphis cops have behaved as brutally had Nichols been white? To anti-cop activists, the answer is self-evidently no.
But another thought experiment is in order: Did these cops possess the tactical skill and psychological disposition to conduct any high-risk car stop according to professional standards? Given what is shown in the videos, the answer, even more self-evidently, is no.
The officers ignored protocol for car stops, whereby a driver is told to stay in his car and show his hands; instead, for no apparent reason, they dragged Nichols out of the car and manhandled him to the ground. They failed to tell him the reason for the stop. They failed to follow a chain of command, whereby the officer who initiated the stop usually takes the tactical lead; instead, they operated without coordination and at cross purposes. They issued contradictory commands that could not be simultaneously obeyed. They escalated their use of force without provocation. They increased everyone’s stress by screaming profanities at a cowering Nichols; it is Nichols, not the officers, who poignantly tries to deescalate the situation by pointing out his compliance. Having unjustifiably resorted to a taser and pepper spray, the cops botched their deployment of those devices. They were unable to handcuff Nichols, despite his low level of resistance and the officers’ superior numbers. They either never turned on their body cameras, turned them on belatedly, turned them off again, or removed them altogether. One officer texted a cell phone photo of a beaten and bloodied Nichols to five people, as if Nichols were a big-game trophy. The officers failed to alert a supervisor after they used their stun gun and pepper spray.
All this before one even gets to the gratuitous violence. The kicks and blows that rained down on Nichols’s head as he is hoisted up by some of the officers to receive those blows are heartbreaking. Officers are taught never to strike a suspect in the head unless he poses an imminent threat of deadly force. Yet these officers laughed and bragged to one another about their lawless brutality.
Either Memphis’s police training is grossly inadequate, or these officers were incapable of processing it. In either case, it is fully conceivable that they would treat a white driver with as much savage incompetence.
The Nichols beating is not the product of racism; it is the tragic culmination of the very narrative being offered to explain that beating. The idea that policing is racist, both in its treatment of black suspects and in its hiring of black officers, has led to manpower loss, a lowering of standards, and a drop in proactive enforcement. The resulting increase in crime then puts more downward pressure on hiring standards in order to try to replenish the depleted ranks. Unable to compensate for officer attrition, police departments are left without enough well-trained sergeants and lieutenants to supervise officers who maybe should never have been hired in the first place.
Since 2014, Black Lives Matter agitation has decimated police ranks and driven away potential applicants who do not want to be presumed racist from their first day on the job.
The Memphis Police Department is typical. It lost more than 300 officers in the last two years to resignations and retirements, and 1,350 officers over the last decade; its numbers are down 22 percent since 2011. In 2015, as the first round of Black Lives Matter rioting spread around the country, a fatal police shooting (of the preferred white officer–black victim configuration) spurred demonstrations against the Memphis PD. (The family of the teenage victim is now making its second bid to reopen the criminal case against the officer, its 2020 post–George Floyd effort having failed. This time, it will likely succeed.)
In 2018, the MPD eliminated the requirement of a college degree. The department regularly requested permission from the police licensing board to hire rookies with felony and misdemeanor convictions. A former lieutenant in charge of recruiting complained to the Associated Press that the department let “just pretty much anybody” become a police officer. The most brutal officer in the Nichols beating, Emmitt Martin III, joined the force in 2018. He had at least one arrest on his record, whose details have been redacted. The criminal history of another officer in the beating, Demetrius Haley, was also redacted from state records. Haley joined the force in January 2021.
Meantime, Memphis crime soared. The years 2020 and 2021 saw record levels of killings. Memphis has the highest violent-crime rate in the United States; it ranks ninth in homicides per capita. Reckless driving also spiked, providing an additional impetus for the creation of the specialized enforcement unit where the five Nichols cops worked. (The Nichols officers initially claimed that Nichols was driving the wrong way down a street.)
Memphis’s manpower woes are hardly unique. In a national sample of 194 police agencies, retirements rose 45 percent in 2020, compared with 2019; resignations rose 18 percent. Departments with 500 or more officers saw a 36 percent decrease in hiring in 2020. These trends almost certainly worsened in 2021 and 2022.
Yet across the country, even as the political stigma against police poisons recruiting, the pressure to align police demographics with local demographics remains unrelenting. Vanita Gupta, the third-highest ranking official in the Justice Department and the former head of the department’s civil rights division under President Barack Obama, told the Washington Post last week: “We have all been promoting . . . police officers that will reflect the communities that they serve.” Such diversity hiring is in part a response to the “recognition” of what Gupta calls “racial bias in our criminal justice system.” And one of the alleged sources of bias is hiring criteria that have a disparate impact on blacks.
This disparate-impact thinking is the second cause of watered-down hiring standards. It has a long history. In a prototypical case, a 1990 federal consent decree required the Philadelphia Police Department to stop ranking applicants based on their performance on the police hiring exam. That exam was presumptively racist since whites passed it at four times the rate of blacks. The possibility that black candidates, on average, lacked the requisite academic skills to pass the exam was outside the realm of allowable thinking. The consent decree mandated that the department admit blacks based on their numbers in the applicant pool, not on their test results. A devastating misconduct episode, the 39th Police District scandal, followed.
A 1998 report from the department’s anti-corruption office, created in response to that scandal, described a typical recruit under the new hiring standards: unable to spell simple words or write a basic sentence, unable to pass a polygraph test about drugs on his first five tries, unable to get credit because of his lousy payment history—yet hired anyway. A current Philadelphia police inspector applied in 1994, along with 30,000 other applicants. Whereas most whites clustered at the high end of entrance exam scores, most of the blacks in his entering class of 150 scored below the passing score of 70 but were admitted anyway. Fifteen recruits were fired before completing training. Reasons included the commission of felonies while in the academy or testing positive for drugs. All the fired recruits were likely affirmative-action hires. The 1998 report analyzed a six-month stretch in 1997 and found that 17 officers during that time frame had been charged with homicide, rape, statutory rape, off-duty assault, and theft—a crime wave of “startling proportions,” according to the department’s integrity and accountability officer, James B. Jordan.
Philadelphia’s academy classes in the post–George Floyd era are two-thirds smaller than in the 1990s, though entrance requirements remain minimal. The several dozen or so recruits who graduate from academy training do not begin to make up for the hundreds of officers who retire or resign each year, leaving the PPD about 1,300 officers short of its target staffing level. And so the downward pressure on qualifications continues.
Gupta may believe that officers should reflect the communities they serve. But if such racial proportionality is achieved at the expense of competence, the results do not serve those communities. An Obama-era report on the Philadelphia Police Department, for instance, found that black and Hispanic officers were more likely than white officers to shoot an unarmed black man based on threat-perception failure—mistaking a cell phone for a gun, say.
Philadelphia’s 39th Police District scandal has been replicated widely. A 1998 report from the federal General Accounting Office blamed lowered hiring standards for a spate of police drug convictions across the country. In 1993, 113 Washington, D.C., officers were indicted for felonies ranging from drug dealing to murder after a period of racial favoritism in hiring and the watering down of the hiring exam. Twelve officers from the New York Police Department’s 30th precinct were indicted in the early 1990s for extorting drug dealers, intimidating and assaulting witnesses, and tampering with evidence. Several had been hired despite rock-bottom test scores and known ties to drug gangs. By the late 1980s, nearly 10 percent of the Miami Police Department had been suspended or fired for crimes such as murder, robbery, and drug dealing. The city’s commissioners had previously declared that 80 percent of new hires be minorities.
More departments are jettisoning the requirement of clean criminal records, among other expectations, driven by the twin imperatives of getting more recruits, period, and of getting more minority recruits. The results will not be good.
Interpreting the Tyre Nichols beating as a function of police racism will make recruiting harder still. A poster in a St. Paul high school, erected before the incident, shows a raised fist breaking a police badge, over the slogan: “No more police hatred towards minorities.” Good luck coaxing people into the profession in the face of such messages.
An insufficient number of officers means more crime. Those officers remaining on a force will be less likely to intervene in suspicious behavior. They know that if an interaction turns violent, back-up may be slow to arrive.
Potential criminals will be more likely to break the law as the risk of being stopped or arrested plunges. With crime rising, existing officers will work longer hours without time off or adequate rest, increasing the possibility of threat misperception. Without sufficient back-up, an officer confronting a resisting suspect may be more inclined to escalate his own use of force beyond what appears justified to civilian observers, starting the anti-cop cycle all over again. Yet with crime rising, the political pressure to hire more cops, by any means, goes up in tandem.
Meanwhile, the tactical tool kit is shrinking. The call to reduce car stops is being renewed. The decline in such stops after the Floyd riots already led to a massive increase in fatal car crashes, especially in high-crime minority areas. Specialized units, such as Memphis’s Scorpion team, where the officers in the Nichols case worked, also find themselves in the crosshairs. But the problem is not specialization: it is lowered standards and lack of oversight. Memphis police chief Cerelyn Davis told the Memphis city council last week: “None of our units have a sufficient amount of supervision.”
We don’t know yet what the caliber of police training was in Memphis. Its police chief insists that officers are given all the necessary tactical skills to perform lawfully and effectively. If so, then even more blame falls on its hiring standards.
We do know that police training across the country is woefully inadequate. The initial academy period is comparatively brief. Once on the job, officers receive only the most perfunctory refreshers in tactics. They desperately need more practice in de-escalation and stress control. But even a day of in-service training takes officers off the streets at a time when force levels are already dangerously low. So the pressure is on to limit such training. In the wake of the Nichols death, expect implicit-bias and cultural-competence training to increase, draining precious time and resources from subjects that actually help officers perform.
The only thing that will get policing out of its death spiral is the widespread repudiation of the racism narrative. It is not racism that brings officers into more frequent contact with minorities; it is exceedingly high rates of crime in minority communities. It is not the police who are responsible for the fact that blacks between the ages of ten and 24 die of gun homicide at 25 times the rate of whites in that age bracket; those black victims are shot almost exclusively by black criminals. In 2022, seven allegedly unarmed blacks were fatally shot by police officers, out of a national homicide death toll for blacks that will likely exceed 10,000 and a black population of 44 million. Meantime, dozens of blacks are killed every day (more than all white and Hispanic homicide victims combined, even though blacks are only 13 percent of the U.S. population), to no attention from the mainstream media or from Black Lives Matter activists, because their assailants are not cops and are not white.
Departments across the country must urgently review their training and hiring standards to ensure that another abomination like the fatal torture of Tyre Nichols does not reoccur. But they will be less able to provide the protection that law-abiding residents of high-crime communities desperately deserve so long as the president, academia, and the media insist that police are the embodiment of America’s allegedly lingering white supremacy.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images