The police killing of an unarmed Black Minnesota man last week reignited a national debate on how to make law enforcement less lethal.

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It seems we may be focusing on too many of the wrong things in the fraught aftermath of an enraged fatal beating by seven cops of an unarmed Black motorist last week after a traffic stop in Memphis, Tennessee.

Potential solutions might be far less complicated and opaque than many people suspect. Misusing terms like “defunding the police” won’t get us there. More on that later.

For armchair criminologists, the fact that five of the assaulting cops were also Black men complicates analysis of the disturbing incident—taking off the table a standard trope of a national law-enforcement crisis perpetrated only by white cops unjustifiably and too-frequently killing unarmed Black citizens (and other-race suspects).

But USA Today reported after the inflammatory incident last week:

In the long sequence of high-profile deaths of Black men at the hands of police, the death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis shared many of the same hallmarks: a traffic stop that turns violent, an outraged community and a crucial release of video footage. 

But the case was unique in another way. All five police officers charged with murdering Nichols are Black. … [E]xperts, activists and attorneys told USA Today that the race of the officers involved is far less important than the race of the victim. They say a “historically biased culture of policing” puts Black people at risk regardless of an officer’s race.

Seven officers involved directly and peripherally in this police killing were initially fired from the Memphis force, but a public announcement was made only for the five cops directly implicated, who were charged with a range of offenses, including second-degree murder. Prosecutors have said other charges are imminent in the case. In addition, three Memphis Fire Department emergency medical technicians, including a lieutenant, were terminated after Nichol’s fatal beating for violating “numerous MFD Policies and Protocols” in responding to the incident.

Nichols died three days after he was brutally beaten (the assaults, which included taser shocks, punches, kicks [some to the head], and baton blows were captured on several videos).

YouTube video
Full video of Tyre Nichols’ police assault.

Leaders of Memphis’ Black community and Nichols’ family have expressed satisfaction at the extraordinarily swift and vigorous response of the city’s civic and law-enforcement leaders. The five officers directly involved in Nichols’ death were fired from the police force and formally charged with felonies less than three weeks after the incident.

As we await the accused officers’ trials, Memphis and the nation are waiting to see what happens next—whether a robust national conversation about police reform resumes after it petered out following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in May 2020.

As I watched the horrible videos, and read and watched the many news accounts of Nicols’ arrest and fatal beating by Memphis cops, several critical realities struck me:

  • Nichols’, although consistently portrayed by news media as a voice of calm reason as officers roughly dragged him from his car after a stop for “reckless driving,” appeared to continuously refuse to respond to officers’ repeated commands: “Give me your hands! Lay down flat! Stop struggling!” He kept twisting and turning, not doing what he was asked. It was the same common resistant behavior I saw on videos of other arrest scenarios that turned deadly: Floyd, Michael Brown, Rodney King, Eric Garner, and Daunte Wright.

However, a New York Times report contends that the accused officers “unleashed a barrage of commands [at Nichols] that were confusing, conflicting and sometimes even impossible to obey.”

  • Why was the clearly angry policeman who first dragged Nichols from his car so enraged? What precipitated his seemingly extreme mindset from the get-go? The videos begin with that aggressive eviction, so there is no prior context to explain the officer’s fraught state of mind or rationale.
  • Since the police killing of citizens during traffic stops is so alarmingly common in the United States these days and has been for some years—with guns, fists, tasers, and blunt weapons—why has the law-enforcement community not come up with an effective, reliable non-lethal way to humanely subdue uncooperative suspects? Tasers seem to fail much of the time, policemen are trained with firearms to shoot for the torso rather than a limb, which greatly ups the chance of death, and enraged officers wielding steel-hard batons are an unintended (or intended) killing waiting to happen. Nichols was repeatedly whacked with batons.

How about tranquilizing darts? Or throw-over nets (a la Charlton Heston’s character’s capture in “Planet of the Apes”)? I’m not kidding. Nothing nonlethal and potentially effective should be taken off the table.

Regarding tasers, NPR referenced nonpartisan investigative journalism site APM Reports in an article titled “Despite Widespread Use, Police Rate Tasers As Less Effective Than Believed”:

APM Reports found more than 250 cases across the country where police shot and killed people after a Taser proved ineffective—over just a three-year period. These incidents accounted for about 1 in 12 fatal shootings by U.S. police between 2015 and 2017.

Other less lethal arrest and control tools at law enforcement’s disposal include tear gas, pepper spray, pepper balls, and rubber bullets, which are also often ineffective.

CNBC reported in 2020 that law enforcement that while existing tools can sometimes be effective, a number of new nonlethal options are also being considered:

“All of these [existing] devices should be at hand for the cops to use other than deadly physical force being used by a firearm because it’s the only profession in America where the citizens give you the right to take your life,” said Corey Pegues, former New York Police Department Deputy Inspector.

One of the newest tools is called the Bola Wrap, a handheld device that shoots out an 8-foot Kevlar cord that wraps around a suspect. There are Long Range Acoustic Devices, also known as sound canons, directed energy weapons that use lasers to heat a person’s skin, new projectiles made from things like foam and chalk, stink bombs, and of course the Taser.

How to solve the problem of uncooperative citizens resisting arrest by law enforcement—thus greatly increasing risk of injury and death to themselves—is an impossible conundrum. Under stress, more than a few people are going to do what they’re going to do, law or no law.

How about tranquilizing darts? Or throw-over nets (a la Charleton Heston’s character’s capture in “Planet of the Apes”)? I’m not kidding. Anything nonlethal and potentially effective should be on the table.

After a number of recent unjust, high-profile killings of Black men by police, mothers of African-American boys and young men have been giving them “the talk,” emphasizing the critical importance of not defying police when approached.

As Associated Press reported in April about the roots of this problem, particularly as it pertains to Black people:

“Because of the way police are commonly portrayed, there can be anxiety for young men of color when they are pulled over,” said Jason Johnson, president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund. “‘Am I going to get a ticket? Am I going to get arrested?’ They may believe they are going to be a victim of abuse. Many times they enter into these interactions thinking they are going to be a victim of brutality.”

A rational law enforcement response to this all-too-common reaction should be to employ suspect-compliance policies that fully recognize that any suspect is likely to be anxious and aggressively resistant from the start. That’s necessarily tricky, however, because cops also have to be vigilantly aware that any suspect might also be carrying a firearm and be a mortal threat to them.

But this is the problem to be solved that has yet to be solved, as more citizens, often young Black men, needlessly die in traffic stops and other routine altercations with police.

The loaded psychology of these police killings needs to be more fully addressed, including the mindsets both white and Black cops bring to their stressful, dangerous jobs.

As one pundit said on a cable news show this week, all cops—white, Black or otherwise—“bleed blue,” meaning their first allegiance is to their colleagues and the institution they serve.

USA Today reported that white and Black officers share certain professional DNA:

[E]xperts, activists and attorneys told USA Today that the race of the officers involved is far less important than the race of the victim. They say a “historically biased culture of policing” puts Black people at risk regardless of an officer’s race.

“Black people and Black police officers can carry with them some of the same understandings or views of Black people as white police officers might,” said Ralph Richard Banks, law professor and faculty director of the Stanford Center for Racial Justice. “There’s nothing that immunizes them.”

In the end, we only get distracted by trendy, hard-to-understand, quasi-solutions like so-called “defunding the police,” which, in fact, is nothing like it sounds (it’s about reassessing the distribution of funding for more humane and effective outcomes, not starving law-enforcement of resources).

The overarching goal at this violent moment should be to redefine policing, not denude it.

And the first order of reform should be to make law enforcement less lethal to citizens, while not forgetting that cops chronically face grave risks daily as an occupational hazard.

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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...