A traffic stop.
That’s how it all started.
But not really.
It started with another police force instructed by higher ups to “get tough on crime,” a slogan politicians use to get elected, but abandon, briefly, when police act so aggressively they hurt or kill another Black person in the name of reducing crime.
It started with a rise in homicides in Memphis and more people drag racing in the streets and the creation of a “special unit” given the power to be more aggressive and use low-level traffic stops to nab criminals.
All five police charged with the murder of Tyre Nichols were part of the SCORPION Unit (Street Crimes Operations to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods), launched in 2021. Officials boasted about the unit’s increase in arrests and seizures of drugs, weapons and cash. Others worried the unit consisted of violent bullies who targeted people in poor Black neighborhoods.
In addition, two more police officers were disciplined and three emergency responders were fired for violated multiple department policies and protocols.
It started when Memphis police pulled over Nichols, 29, on Jan. 7 for allegedly driving recklessly. In a frenzy of yelling and conflicting police orders, officers forced Nichols out of his car and pushed him to the ground. Nichols told them calmly, “I’m on the ground,” yet they still screamed, pepper sprayed him and threaten to Tase him. For what? Complying?
Then Nichols got up and ran. He fled for his life. The officers gave chase until they ran out of breath. One cop radioed in the ID: “Young, male, Black, slim build, blue jeans and a hoodie.” That’s what Nichols was to them.
A Black man in a hoodie on the run from the law. A bad guy.
He was a man trying to get home like his life depended on it. And home was just a few houses away.
When they did catch Nichols, they punished him. They pepper sprayed him over and over. He screamed for his mom. Then they simply lost their minds. Or their souls.
One officer swung his leg back and kicked Nichols full force in the face. Twice.
Two officers held Nichols up so the others could treat him like a human pinata. They punched his face. One cop yelled, “Watch out, I’m going to baton the f--- out of you” then hit Nichols – who was restrained and could not block the blows – three times with a police baton.
Then they stood around and did nothing to aid a dying man. Nothing.
The video is horrendous. His mother, RowVaughn Wells, wanted us to see what happened to her boy just like Emmett Till’s mother, who opened that coffin for the world to see what those brutal white men did to her son.
That was 1955.
This is 2023.
Black men are still an endangered species.
Nichols died three days later in a hospital. The police even deprived him of his mother’s love. The night the police beat him, officers came to his mother’s home and asked if he was on any drugs. They told her not to go to the hospital because he was under arrest.
She told CNN she didn’t go until a doctor at St. Francis Hospital called at 4 a.m. on the day her son died to ask, “Why aren’t you here?”
How callous and cold.
Five officers participated in the killing of Nichols. Not one of them stopped the attack. Not one of them paused. Not one of them offered him aid. Not one of them remembered their own humanity. Or his.
What now? More protests and pleas for police reform.
It’s time to set aside the mantras that divide us. Instead of pleas to defund the police, find new ways to restructure the police. Hold police departments liable for misconduct. End racial profiling. Limit the use of excessive force so it becomes a rare, last resort. Create a national registry of police misconduct so bad cops can’t simply move elsewhere to get hired as officers.
Include social workers and mental health professionals in police work to better protect and serve homeless people and those with mental illness. Review all “special units” created to get “tough on crime.”
Make empathy part of policing. Teach officers how to give basic first aid, how to contact and comfort next of kin. Work with community activists to find ways to stop violent crime and protect the property of people in high crime areas without being violent.
Nichols’ mother said she will forever miss her son’s beautiful smile. She said, “I just feel like my son was sent here on assignment from God, and his assignment is over.”
Or maybe it’s ours to finish.
Connect with Regina Brett on Facebook at ReginaBrettFans and sign up for her weekly newsletter at reginabrett.com.