Could We Have Prevented Tyre Nichols’s Murder?
Very sad. Ms. Davis appears to be a very smart, committed law enforcement officer who inherited the most lethal city in the US and had insufficient time to turn things around? On the other hand, her oversight of some of the hiring might have been lacking. Complex situation.
She rightfully deserves to get the blowback for the Tyre's murder (as the boss) but also deserves to be viewed in the context of her past achievements and lives saved in Memphis during her short tenure?
Could We Have Prevented Tyre Nichols’s Murder?
The policemen who beat him had their body cameras on, and it made no difference.
By William A. Galston
Jan. 31, 2023 6:28 pm ET
Cerelyn Davis speaks during an interview in Memphis, Tenn., Jan. 27.
Say you’re Cerelyn Davis, and you’ve spent your entire adult life in law enforcement. You joined the Atlanta police force in 1986, rising to the rank of deputy chief before becoming chief of police in Durham, N.C., in 2016. After the murder of George Floyd in 2020, you go on national television to call for “sweeping changes and police reform.” In 2021, you leave Durham to become chief in Memphis, Tenn.
You inherit a city in crisis. Violent crime is increasing alarmingly throughout the country, but Memphis is worse. Homicides in the city have soared from 237 in 2019 to 327 in 2020 and are on track to set a dismal new record high of 346 in 2021. Based on aggregate crime statistics, some rate Memphis the most dangerous city in America.
You weren’t hired to preside over the status quo, and you don’t. After assessing the situation, you tell the community, “We all have that understanding about being tough on tough people.” You create a new strike force, Scorpion—the Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods. You deploy 40 officers to some of the most dangerous hot spots in the city.
Your strategy seems to be working. Crime statistics begin to move in the right direction, and the mayor touts your efforts. There are murmurings of discontent from the community about the unit’s allegedly heavy-handed tactics, but no more than expected.
And then, after only 14 months, the Scorpion operation blows up in your face. Five officers in the unit stop a motorist for a traffic violation and end up beating him savagely. He dies three days later in the hospital.
You handle the situation almost perfectly. Unlike many previous chiefs across the country, you don’t reflexively defend the officers; you quickly fire them. And you justify the firings in terms everyone can understand. “This is not just a professional failing,” you say. “This is a failing of basic humanity toward another individual.”
Unlike other chiefs, you don’t try to bottle up the event; you promise transparency and deliver it. After preparing your fellow citizens for what they are about to see, you release the officers’ body-camera footage. Those who watch the video are shocked but, thanks to you, not completely surprised. Unlike leaders in other police departments, you don’t allow the accused officers to view the video in advance because you don’t want to give them the chance to tailor their statements to what they see.
And then, after some initial hesitation, you bow to the inevitable and disband Scorpion. I don’t know for sure, but I would bet you’re asking yourself, “What next? How can I make the community I’ve sworn to protect and serve safer without employing a cure that’s worse than the disease?”
These are questions we should all be asking.
Some elected officials have called for resuming the bipartisan talks on police reform that stalled in Congress two years ago. This is a good idea, but it’s hard to think of federal legislation that would have prevented what happened in Memphis. Banning chokeholds and ending qualified immunity are sound steps, but they won’t stop cops from beating people to death if they’re bent on doing so. The Memphis policemen knew that their body cameras were on, and it made no difference.
Many prior incidents have involved police officers, often white, from outside the black and brown communities they patrol. Not this time. The population of Memphis is 65% African-American, as is 58% of the police force, as are most of the officers who assaulted and killed Tyre Nichols, who was also black.
Mark LeSure, a retired Memphis police sergeant, offered context for these events that I found illuminating. Over the past decade, he recounted, pay cuts, pension-plan reductions, and other issues had induced many of the force’s veterans to retire, and those hired to fill their place were far less experienced. Elite units such as Scorpion were staffed with police at much earlier points in their careers than previously, raising risks when they were told to move aggressively against street crime. “They let their emotions get the best of them,” he said, “and there was no veteran officer there to stop them.”
To be sure, the presence of a veteran officer is no panacea; the senior officer involved in the George Floyd murder was the most egregious offender. Still, Mr. LeSure’s street-level explanation has the ring of truth. Police officers are subject to all of the vulnerabilities of the human condition, including what St. Augustine called the libido dominandi—the impulse to exert dominance over others. It will take better training, improved on-the-ground leadership, and more reliable mechanisms of accountability to lean against this impulse, which can be fatal when it drives the actions of cops on the beat.