The death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis has ignited yet another media firestorm and public outcry for police reform.
Multiple pundits and officials quickly attributed the tragedy to White supremacy, internalized racism and systemic failures in law enforcement. CNN’s Van Jones opined, “The police who killed Tyre Nichols were Black. But they might still have been driven by racism.” New York Times correspondent Clyde McGrady wrote about “an entrenched police culture of aggression and dehumanization of Black people.” And Rep. Maxwell Frost, D-Florida, declared, “Doesn’t matter what color those police officers are. The murder of Tyre Nichols is anti-Black and the result of white supremacy.”
As in the cases of other high-profile police misconduct in recent years, overzealous pundits rush to demand comprehensive reforms of our policing system without addressing the full context of the problem.
The public outrage is understandable given the saturated media coverage, and so is the urge to do something about police misconduct. However, the prescribed solutions in response to a race-based prognosis of the incident will only further jeopardize law and order by eroding public trust in law enforcement.
If we are serious about stopping preventable tragedies involving the use of deadly force by police in the future, we must first reject the highly politicized hyperbole that masquerades as truth and identify the actual root causes.
The widely spread assertion that police officers of all colors have internalized a racist agenda to hunt and kill unarmed people, and that this predisposition presents an “ongoing existential threat” to racial minorities, is a dangerous myth.
The crusade against law enforcement has done a huge disservice by degrading the dignity of the profession. A 2022 Pew Research Center survey showed that the American public’s confidence in police officers decreased by over 10 percentage points between 2018 and 2021. Another opinion research project by Gallup focused on a 27-year period and found that public trust in the police delved to a record low in 2020 when the percentage fell five points to 48%.
As a result, police departments across the nation, including Memphis, have been experiencing critical staffing shortages. Resignations grew significantly, by 40.4% from 2020 to 2021. Although the statistics for 2022 have yet to be released, widely circulated reports from departments across the country indicate that such staffing shortages are exponentially higher now and will be into the foreseeable future.
New York, for example, has a shortage of over 3,700 officers with little ability to replenish the ranks and keep up with attrition.. According to the New York Police Benevolent Association, the New York Police Department would need at least 1,200 new recruits to fill budgeted positions and an additional 2,500 recruits to maintain its 2019 staffing levels. Instead, the department was only able to acquire 543 recruits. To make matters worse, not all of those 543 recruits will pass the rigorous training regimen and ultimately be deployed, which exacerbates the current shortage.
Other jurisdictions have responded to the staffing issues by lowering recruitment and training standards. In Chicago, the police department lowered its requirements for job applicants. New Orleans opened up 50 to 70 “civilian” detective positions and lowered standards for uniformed officers to allow previously disqualified applicants to re-apply.
Memphis is no exception. The Memphis PD lowered its standards to replenish the ranks. At least two of the five former officers charged in the death of Tyre Nichols were employed after the hiring standards were lowered. The solution is not to punish the entire profession by withholding respect or resources, but to uphold rigorous standards for ethics, professionalism and competence.
Compliance and cooperation
According to the FBI Crime Data Explorer, there were 13,537 homicides in this country in 2021, of which 4,905 (33%), 7,975 (53%) and 1,463 (12%) were committed by Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics, respectively. These numbers dwarf those reported by Mapping Police Violence which include 1,147 deaths by police. Of the 1,147 deaths, 135 were of unarmed individuals, including 49 Whites, 44 Blacks and 30 Hispanics.
Any sensible action to curb police misconduct and improve safety for all must tackle the declining public trust in police and civilian-police interactions. One common yet politically inconvenient denominator in deadly encounters is the citizens’ failure to comply with lawful commands.
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In many cases with adverse outcomes, people were resistant while being under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.
Mind-altering substances can severely impair a person’s judgment, which results in officers having to use force to facilitate an arrest. The greater the resistance, the more force must be employed. Police encounters with full cooperation, which make up the majority of the innumerable interactions America’s police have with the public daily interactions, are more likely to have positive outcomes.
We should not encourage people (especially youth) to protest and resist law enforcement, but instead help them understand they must obey the law and cooperate with the police. Fleeing, fighting, resisting and assaulting the police dramatically increases the risk of a tragic outcome. This could be a perfect opportunity for advocacy groups to be part of the solution by encouraging compliance and cooperation instead of defiance.
Unequivocally, bad police officers need to be purged from the profession. On balance, good officers, who comprise the vast majority of the policing profession, don’t need to be “reformed.” They deserve the respect and support from all Americans, especially at a time when their services are desperately needed to curb the surge of violent crimes.
Police officers have saved exponentially more lives than they have taken. This is a fact, not a myth.
Paul Cappitelli is a law enforcement professional with over 45 years of experience. He served with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department for 29 years, retiring as a captain in 2007. From 2007-2012, Paul served as executive director of the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training.
Wenyuan Wu is executive director at Californians for Equal Rights.