Home » Posts » The Tyre Nichols Tragedy

People rallied across the US in the last days to protest the fatal police assault of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, who was pulled over on suspicion of reckless driving in Memphis and died in a hospital three days later.

Videos released on Friday by the Memphis police showed that officers dragged Nichols from his car on the night of the traffic stop and shouted profanities at him throughout the assault. Nichols was brutally beaten unconscious by five Memphis police officers. The officers also fabricated audio ques during the arrest for the benefit of their body cameras, shouting for Nichols to comply with their commands after the officers has already immobilized him in handcuffs.

Unbeknownst to the officers, a surveillance camera above the intersection where the assault took place recorded the entire event. Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis said the five officers violated multiple department policies, including excessive use of force, duty to intervene and duty to render aid. Since then, the five officers have been charged with second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, and official misconduct.

Memphis Police have permanently deactivated its SCORPION Unit, a team tasked with taking on “street crime”, one day after the release of video showing the violent assault. The five officers charges in Nichols’ assault were part of the SCORPION Unit. Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis met with members of the unit to discuss the path forward for the department – and the community – in the aftermath of the tragic event. An outside, independent review of the training, policies, and operations of the specialized units is also being initiated by the city.

Nichols’ tragic death has led to outrage and condemnation from racial justice activists, police reform advocates, and law enforcement officials nationwide. The fact that the five officers charged with Mr. Nichols’s murder are Black has brought much needed attention to the problem that many Black people have said is often overlooked when police brutality cases involve white officers and black victims: problems of race and policing are rooted more in an ingrained police culture of aggression and dehumanization of Black people than interpersonal racism. Activists and others argue that it is the system and the tactics that foster racism and violence, rather than the specific racial identities of officers.

In addition, the way police departments are organized in the United States differs greatly from those in Europe, for instance. Each city, town, county, and state in the United States has its own police department with its own specialty units, much like the disbanded “SCORPION Unit.” Compared to Europe, where I live, police forces are organized at the national level, with centralized command, control, and behavior policies. Tragically, US law enforcement kills hundreds of people each year due to the hyper-local approach to aggressive policing, unchecked use of force, and inconsistent community relations which contributes to these terrible outcomes.

However, the qualified immunity doctrine is the bedrock foundation to outrageous police behavior. This is a legal principle that protects government officials, including police officers, from civil liability lawsuits. The doctrine applies to police officers who are performing their official duties, and it means that they cannot be held personally liable for civil damages unless they have violated a clearly established constitutional or statutory right. A survey conducted by YouGov of 2,000 Americans found that 63% responded in support of ending qualified immunity allowing them to be sued for misconduct even if there is no previous legal case with similar facts. 37% of Americans oppose ending qualified immunity. [Note: The survey was coauthored with the Cato Institute, which promotes libertarian policies. The survey crosses ideological boundaries, and it reads legit to me, but I’m still not linking to Cato. Google it.]

Interestingly, the survey also reported that 55% of Americans are worried ending qualified immunity for police would mean that officers “may be too afraid to do their jobs effectively because they will fear being sued or harassed”, which is an incredible statement given how much fear and intimidation US police inflict on their communities. Qualified immunity faces growing public pressure to be abolished. Happily, Colorado and New Mexico have passed laws prohibiting its use in state courts, while legislation to limit its scope or increase accountability for police misconduct has been considered in Congress, but no federal laws have been passed yet.

Former president Barack Obama sums up this story perfectly. “The vicious, unjustified beating of Tyre Nichols and his ultimate death at the hands of five Memphis police officers is just the latest, painful reminder of how far America still has to go in fixing how we police our streets.”