Time to Police the Police Force

For years, the profession of police officer had always been, in my mind, associated with a historic photo of a towering, gun-carrying young policeman bending over and chatting with a little boy not much taller than his knee during a parade in 1957 in Washington, D.C.

But things have changed rather drastically.

The images of the police force have become more and more colorful and multi-dimensional, replacing the conventional stereotype: brave, law-abiding, and trustworthy.

The events involving police actions in recent years illustrate these changes, and the death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of police, following a seemingly standard traffic stop in early January is revealing a chain of failure in the police profession. These failures, unfortunately, seem to have become common now, more than sporadic.

From the video clips released by Memphis police department, upon the request of Nichols family through their attorneys, one can see the unfolding of the brutal beating delivered by five uniformed police officers to Nichols, the victim of this police violence. Nichols died three days later of “extensive bleeding caused by a severe beating.” The Nichols family’s attorney, Antonio Romanucci, described the actions captured in the video as not only “violent, it was savage.”

After the death of Nichols, the Memphis police department and the county sheriff’s office took a series of actions in the midst of the ongoing internal and federal investigations. The five officers captured in the beating videos were quickly fired and charged. Two deputy sheriffs on the scene of arrest were relieved from duty days later. A sixth officer was fired after that. And the police unit to which those officers were assigned was abruptly disbanded.

These actions, however swift, would be of no good to either achieving justice for Nichols and his family or preventing future police crimes in Memphis and elsewhere, if the ongoing investigations conclude by only punishing the individuals who literally carried out the brutality without pressing the questions underneath -- that of the disturbing police culture that has been obvious for years.

Then, what are the questions that must be asked and hopefully answered?

Common sense tells that, those five officers charged in Nichols’ death did not become killer police overnight. One of the five, Demetrius Haley, in fact, had been sued for beating a prison inmate while employed as a correction officer at the Shelby County Corrections Department in 2015.

Thus, the first and most obvious question directed to the Memphis police department is: Did the department have any knowledge of those five officers’ violent tendencies before and after their hiring? What precautions had been given to their violent tendencies in the process of their hiring and job assignments?

The charged five appeared to act in sync on the beating scene. So, the next question is: Were those five assembled together randomly, or according to their matching characters and work ethics?

The charged five were part of a specialized unit called the Scorpion unit, which was created to combat the rising crime in the city.

If those five could carry out the deadly beating seen in the video in a matter-of-routine procedural manner, how did the other unit members carry out their duties? This question has already been answered, although only partly, by critics of the Scorpion unit, which was regarded by the community as an oppressor because of its excessive force tactics.

The follow-up question after that will be: Were the members of the Scorpion unit licensed to use beyond-necessity force at their own discretion? Or did they simply exert their self-entitled power on duty (and probably off duty as well) without being monitored and held accountable? The fact that two deputy sheriffs were idly present at the beating scene suggests both.

The charged five, although directly responsible for Nichols’ death, are not the only culprits. From the Shelby County sheriff’s office to the city’s police department, from the hiring and training of the officers, and from the field officers to the commanders in the office, failures at multiple levels in various forms together led to the death of Nichols.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, abusive use of police force is not limited to Memphis.

Less than two months ago, police handcuffed and arrested an 82-year-old woman in Alabama over a $77 unpaid trash bill. That incident marked a new height in the use of excessive force by police toward non-violent citizens.

If someone equates police overuse of force on ordinary citizens to police bravery in front of real crimes, he could not be more mistaken. The reality, based on news coverage at least, is that the police force has been increasingly exhibiting hesitance or even cowardice when facing real threats on duty, as manifested in the Robb Elementary School massacre in Uvalde (May 24, 2022), in the storming mass protest at the Capitol during the after-election protests (January 6, 2021), and during the antifa protests infested with widespread robbery, vandalism and violence following George Floyd’s death (starting on May 26, 2020 and throughout the second half of that year). In all of these events, the police force failed in professionalism, in protecting the property and lives of the society which had been entrusted to them, and above all, the Constitution.

The loss of police professionalism should not be a surprise. When many members of the police force openly displayed their political stance while on duty, for instance kneeling down to show support to the Black Lives Matter movements, it is pretty clear that political correctness has overtaken professionalism as the utmost criterion for a police officer to shine.

No one should deny the existence of racism and human rights violations among the police. However, one must also have the courage to acknowledge that, most of the police-involved and police-triggered social unrests have stemmed from a lack of professionalism, rather than the results of abstract inequality, racism and human rights violations. Chanting political slogans in the streets is an easy job, which may or may not bear the intended fruits intended. Tackling the mechanism behind the failing operations, on the other hand, demands courage and devotion, independent of political affiliation.

The young police officer in the famous 1957 photo later recalled his actions toward that little boy: Firecrackers were going off everywhere and the little guy was in reasonable danger … … “I didn’t want to scare him. I didn’t want him to get closer to the firecrackers.”

He was barely one year on the job when the photo was shot. If he were a rogue figure and did not have a caring and respecting characteristics inside to start his career, one year would be long enough for him to learn how much power a police uniform could lend him to satisfy his unruly desires. But he was not that rogue guy.

It is time to demand police accountability to the public from the entire police force as a whole, and not only the problematic pockets of them. Actions should be taken to overhaul current police operations, from recruiting to deployment to supervision. Re-directing misused police resources to their intended directions, rather than de-funding or over-funding the police, would prove more needed and urgent. Above all, police forces must put their professionalism and loyalty to the Constitution ahead of their personal political stances.

Daniel Jia is the founder of consulting firm DJ Integral Services. He writes analytical reports on public-related matters. There is no conflict of interest to be disclosed. 

Image: Pixabay / Pixabay License


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