Tyre Nichols’ death was mourned and his life celebrated as he was laid to rest on 1 February 2023. He loved photography and skateboarding. He was (itl)not(itl) a criminal. He was a young man who loved his mother and loved life.
The details of his murder are well publicized with multiple videos of his savage beating. We have far too much abuse of authority by cops where citizens are brutalized and murdered. This disproportionately happens to our minorities—particularly African Americans and Hispanics.
After each of these murders or brutal beatings, there are calls for changes to reduce, and ideally eliminate these abuses of authority. But soon afterwards, another outrage occurs.
In the case of Tyre’s murder, the battle lines have been drawn once again. There are defenders of the police who argue these abuses are committed by a “few bad apples”, even justifying some of the abuses. On the other side are calls to defund and/or disband the police.
Neither side is correct; though both sides do have some valid points. But both sides miss the essence of the problem. People want quick fixes, but there are no quick fixes to this problem because the primary problem is deeply rooted in the culture of policing. It is that culture that must be changed.
It would behoove us to look closely at the history of policing in this country. Especially for south Texas, we could begin by looking at the history of the Texas Rangers. Revered today; there has been a lot of abuse of authority and brutality, especially toward Mexican Americans.
Some support and others opposed “cancel culture”. One must wonder what people on both sides are thinking. They only muddy the water. Culture is dynamic. We neither can create nor “cancel” culture with the snap of our fingers.
Culture as organic. It resides within each of us. Culture evolves; it changes over time. Most, but certainly not all, cultural changes are for the good.
There was a time when slave labor was accepted throughout the world. But we have evolved and our culture has evolved. Today, throughout the world, slavery no longer is looked upon as justifiable. It is condemned almost throughout the world. The culture of slavery wasn’t canceled. It evolved slowly over centuries to the opposite of what it once was.
The culture of violence by police spans the history of policing. But that culture too has changed, evolved into a culture among citizens—sadly, not necessarily among police—that opposes police violence, brutality and murder. Police are supposed to “keep the peace” by peaceful means. Police violence should occur only when, literally, there is no other choice to protect citizens.
If we sincerely want to change the culture of policing, we need to do more than focus on the culture of violence within the police. We need to look within ourselves and examine closely our own attitudes toward police. We should not be unconditionally supporting the police. Nor should we be unconditionally opposing the police. One position is as wrong as the other.
We need to look at our beliefs and opinions about police in an analytic light, as dispassionately as possible. We need to understand our attitudes toward the police are a big part of the problem of policing.
If we are completing accepting of police, we at least tacitly condone and encourage abuse by cops. If we reject police completely, we are alienating ourselves from them, and also alienating them from the community they are supposed to protect and serve. They become outcasts.
Instead of being unquestioningly for or unquestioningly against, we should recognize the good and the bad within our police departments. We should work to discourage the bad by letting the police know, as a community, we cannot and will not accept abuse of authority.
Similarly, we should work to encourage police by commending them on the good job the vast majority do, and thanking them for the sacrifices they make for us.
It not only is possible to do both at the same time, it is imperative we begin to do so.
There also need to be changes within policing itself. There are calls for better training, and for “community policing”. What do these terms mean and what should they mean?
As for better training, certainly numerous improvements have been made. Sadly, they have proven insufficient thus far. In several respects, we need to reconceptualize police training and policing. Training should include a critical examination of the history and culture of police violence, and how this no longer is tolerable, either by society or by police departments.
It is said police are not “social workers”. But they are social workers and they should be. This needs to be built into police training far more than it appears to be today.
The police routinely interact with the public. They deal with dangerous situations. Frequently there are “bystanders” also caught up in these situations. Police are there to render aid. We must realize aid takes many forms, including de-escalating confrontational situations, rendering aid to the injured and sometimes to the ill. Yes, figuratively if not literally, rescuing kittens caught in trees. Social work.
At the same time there are responsibilities that should be taken from the police and given to others. We have paramedics for the sick and injured. We need social workers who are educated specifically in de-escalating domestic disturbances. This should not be primarily a police function. In potentially violent situations, the police should be there as back-up to the social workers attempting to de-escalate a situation. And in that role, to some degree police continue to be social workers.
We need to demilitarize the police. Absolutely, they need the arms and protections (vests) to defend themselves against violent attack. And, as problematic as they tend to become, we need specialized units; specifically trained to deal with certain situations. But militarizing the police as we have been doing only further isolates police from the community. And specialized units must be taught they have no license and cannot act violently with impunity. They must be taught they will be held accountable.
Police should have qualified immunity. But qualified immunity should not include immunity from abuse of authority, especially violent abuse of authority. Relatedly, police need to work on cleaning up their own houses.
We need “community policing”. That means different things to different people. Ideally, police live in the communities they police. But that can be difficult to impossible in large cities.
We need to get police out of their patrol cars and walking the streets again so they can interact with those who work and live in the areas they patrol. Of course, we cannot take every officer out of every patrol car and have them walk a “beat”. But we can take every officer out of every patrol car for a part of every shift to walk parts of the areas they patrol, to build and improve community relations.
When they do, their objective should be to interact with the public as much as possible. Greet the people they pass by. Strike up conversations. Become “Officer Friendly”. Act as a guidance counselor to our youth. Social work.
This only scratches the surface of what needs to be done. Books easily can and will be written. The most important take aways should be there are no quick fixes to this problem. Every single one of us, in one way or another is a part of the problem. If we want to end police abuse, we first need to change the way in which we think about and interact with our police.
We absolutely must change the culture. It is going to take decades. We need to accept that, but not resign ourselves to the status quo. It is incumbent on all of us as citizens of this truly great society to work for change, for the betterment of our policing and the betterment of our society. Otherwise we are derelict in our responsibilities as citizens.
Editor’s Note: The above guest column, penned by writer and educator Samuel Freeman (pictured above), is the second in a two-part series on the death of Tyre Nichols. Click here to read part one. The column appears in the Rio Grande Guardian International News Service with the permission of the author. Freeman can be reached by email via: [email protected]