Tyre Nichols and the Scourge of Overpolicing

It’s often said that things will get worse before they get better. In the case of overpolicing, just how much worse do they have to get?

All Too Common

American police brutality is so routine that the average instance of it fails to astound. Police officers across the country harass, assault, maim and kill the unarmed and innocent regularly enough for entire communities to distrust them. Millions of Black and brown Americans, who are consistently the most overpoliced demographics, habitually fear the police as a result of their misdeeds, and are taught at a young age how to interact with them in the least threatening and most cautious fashion possible to keep their names from being featured in headlines.

Still, the headlines roll on, and the text that follows will occasionally contain crimes so gruesome and sordid that much of the country is given pause. There is talk of what must be done, of accountability, of how this keeps on happening and whether there’s an end in sight. Grief ensues. The affected parties seethe, cry, pray, protest, riot, build and destroy. The horrifying murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020 elicited these responses, as did the 2016 murder of Philando Castile and the 2014 murders of Tamir Rice and Michael Brown.

The Murder of Tyre Nichols

At the beginning of 2023, five police officers from the Memphis Police Department set the world aflame again. The inhumanly calloused murder of Tyre Nichols in Memphis was among the most harrowing cases of police brutality in the twenty-first century. Following a traffic stop the officers dubiously claimed to be in response to Nichols’ reckless driving, the officers pulled the unarmed and unaggressive Nichols out of his car and proceeded to chase, suppress, tase, pepper spray, punch, kick, and shout unanswerable demands at him.

Protestors outside of the White House.

One officer admitted to taking pictures of the bruised and battered Nichols on his phone and sending them to his friends. Some of them were not even police officers. The first responding emergency medical technicians from the Memphis Fire Department failed to administer care to Nichols for nearly twenty minutes. An accompanying lieutenant failed to go so far as to exit the fire truck upon arrival. Nichols succumbed to his injuries in a hospital three days later.

In total, six officers and three members of the Memphis Fire Department were fired for the gross iniquity and negligence that killed Tyre Nichols. The five officers who fatally beat Nichols were all Black. That prompted national discussion about the breadth and depth of the forces that drive anti-Black policing. The relative speed with which the officers were disciplined could also be called into question. Some have wondered how things might’ve gone had they been white. But beyond all analyses and talking points, the question looms: How much worse does it have to get?

The Other MPD

The Other MPD

In Washington, DC the local Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) also bears accusations – and statistical evidence – of racially motivated overpolicing. Six weeks after Nichols’ murder in Memphis, former DC Mayor and current Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray proposed a bill that would increase the number of police officers in the District. It would also roll back measures that were instated to hold officers accountable for misconduct. Mayor Muriel Bowser, who has long sought to grow the MPD, also supports the bill.

Gray and Bowser both aim to increase police presence in DC, at a time of decreasing numbers of officers and increasing numbers of crimes. On the surface, their goals are statistically informed and morally justifiable. But there is mounting concern, including from DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, over the cost at which their goals come. Crime may be a worryingly consistent factor in DC and the rest of America;. So are the crimes being committed by those sworn to thwart it. The eventual fate of Gray’s bill carries heavy implications for the way the city plans to balance security and accountability.

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