By Nathan Layne and Gabriella Borter
(RockedBuzz via Reuters) – As early as next week, the Memphis city council will consider a series of reforms aimed at reducing police violence after the brutal beating of Tire Nichols by five officers following a traffic stop.
The measures call for greater transparency on use-of-force data, greater access to body camera video and increased powers for a citizen review board, according to interviews with council members. City leaders also want to review police recruitment.
This isn’t the first time the Tennessee city has grappled with bad police practices and promised change. But after Nichols’ beating and subsequent death made Memphis the latest emblem of police brutality against Black Americans, city leaders are facing more pressure than ever to tighten police accountability and hiring standards.
“We cannot let this moment pass us when activism coupled with community concern is at its peak,” said Memphis City Councilman JB Smiley Jr.. “The time is now for Memphis and this nation.”
Videos released last week showed Nichols crying for his mother as the five officers kicked, punched and beat him with a nightstick on Jan. 7, an use of force Police Chief Cerelyn Davis described as “inhumane” . Nichols, 29, died in hospital three days later.
The beating came despite use-of-force policies Memphis and other U.S. cities pledged to enforce following the 2020 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
These policies included the use of only necessary force and the duty to intervene to stop a colleague from dangerous conduct.
Some activists criticized the policies as not sufficient to overhaul a law enforcement system they saw as racially biased. The Memphis Police Department did not respond to questions about how the policies were enforced.
Smiley, a Democrat, said he hoped Nichols’ death would encourage the 13-member board to uphold three ordinances, or local laws, that he plans to introduce at next Tuesday’s meeting to increase accountability.
Smiley said his proposals would require police to disclose detailed data on traffic blockages and excessive force complaints; mandating that body camera video of incidents involving misconduct allegations be shared with the attorney and council safety officer; and ensure that a civilian oversight committee is briefed on the implementation of recommended reforms.
Community activists also want city leaders to end specious traffic blocks, in which cops can stop motorists for something minor in order to investigate more serious crimes. Police said they stopped Nichols for reckless driving, but Davis questioned the basis for the arrest.
Memphis activist LJ Abraham said he hopes Nichols’ case will persuade the council to take calls for bolder reforms more seriously.
“I think that gives us a bit of an edge in what we’re asking,” he said.
Frank Colvett, a Republican council member, said an examination of police hiring standards and an assessment of officers’ mental fitness was needed after the five officers were charged in Nichols’ murder.
“How do we make sure people like that don’t come close to the badge of a Memphis police officer?” asked Colvet.
Smiley said they expected the police department and union to push back some of the reforms. Lt. Essica Cage-Rosario, president of the Memphis Police Association, declined to comment, citing the ongoing criminal investigation.
In recent years, city leaders have sought to raise the ranks of officers in the department, which have dwindled as violent crime has risen. An aggressive recruiting drive increased officer numbers by about 10 percent from 2017 to 2020. As of January, there were 1,941 serving officers, well short of the city’s goal of 2,300.
As part of the hiring spree, the city dropped the requirement that recruits have a college degree or military experience.
Michael Williams, then president of the Memphis Police Association, said in 2018 that standards had been lowered so low that unqualified officers patrolled the streets.
The police department did not respond to a request for comment about its hiring practices. The five officers accused in the Nichols case were hired between 2017 and 2020 and assigned to the specialized force “SCORPION” formed in 2021 to patrol high crime areas. Davis disbanded the unit last week.
This week on a local TV show he hosts, Williams said the revised hiring practices cannot be directly linked to the Nichols beating. You said Memphis had one of the best training academies in the United States.
“Many of the officers we’ve gotten, even with the lowering of standards, have been good officers. You can have officers who have PhDs, masters and degrees and they can still be bad – it’s all according to the mentality of the officer,” he said.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a police research organization, said cities should prioritize investment in recruiting and training over additional oversight measures to prevent tragedies from occurring. in the first place.
In a 2020 survey of approximately 280 US police departments, PERF found that 71% spent less than 5% of their budget on training and that the duration of training for US police officers was much shorter compared to European countries.
“The problem is not that you have to oversee the police more, the problem is that you have to hire the best people, train them better and then supervise them better,” Wexler said.
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter and Nathan Layne; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jonathan Oatis)