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Signs of The Times

March 31, 2023
Mike Sampson

Gun Talk readers likely have read about the Jan. 7 attack and beating of Tyre Nichols by five Memphis, TN, police officers after a traffic stop, allegedly for reckless driving.

Tragically, Nichols died from his injuries on Jan. 10. The five officers have since been fired and charged with second-degree murder and other offenses. Nichols was unarmed.

With my background in law enforcement, I’m definitely pro-police, but the use of force in Memphis as videoed may be questionable, and is disturbing as well. This also is a sad commentary on where some cities are now with policing. Minneapolis and Louisville, KY, come to mind with police use-of-force incidents.

As more information comes out from Memphis, a number of causes may surface as to why police use of force escalated to result in a suspect’s death. Are controversial policing incidents signs of the times?

Having been involved with policy, procedure, recruiting and training work with the Boise, Idaho, Police Department, the failures I see in the Memphis incident are abundant. Did the officers follow mandated policies and procedures, and respond as they trained? As an armchair observer, I would say “no” with the information I currently have.

What took place in Memphis probably is “the perfect storm” of where policing may be headed in the United States in too many cities. Louisville, KY, saw backlash from the March 13, 2020,      police-involved fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor during a “no-knock” warrant. Are there ways to stop the “storm?”

On March 9 this year, the U.S. Department of Justice took a step by announcing investigations into policing problems and “abusive law-enforcement practices” in Memphis and Louisville. Hopefully some answers will evolve.

On the list of lingering problems might be the push to defund policing, liberal prosecutors turning criminal suspects loose, reduced or no bond, lowered police hiring standards, insufficient police staffing and training, lack of sound departmental leadership, racial issues, officers quitting or retiring, little public respect for authority, little or no accountability, community distrust of police, and more.

What these factors do is create frustration for the public, for officers and the whole concept of law enforcement. Probably the only ones to benefit from such frustration are criminals.

The Memphis Police Director Cerelyn Davis told The Associated Press (AP) “a dangerous confluence of trends” has dogged the department as the city became one of the nation’s murder hotspots. Trends include a chronic shortage of officers, especially supervisors, increasing numbers of police quitting and a struggle to bring in qualified recruits. Memphis is not alone.

Additional cities include Minneapolis, MN; Portland, OR; Seattle, WA; Los Angeles, CA; St. Louis and Kansas City, MO; New York City, NY; Phoenix, AZ; Atlanta, GA; Chicago, IL; New Orleans, LA; and no doubt other metro areas. And look at the high crime rates in these cities. I’m not sure I would want a law-enforcement job in any of these cities.

In Memphis, the city reduced hiring standards and increased incentives to bring in officers. The city also has a lengthy history of police problems stretching back nearly 10 years.

AP reported Memphis “would allow just pretty much anybody to be a police officer because they just want these numbers,” said Alvin Davis, a former lieutenant in charge of recruiting before he retired last year out of frustration. “They’re not ready for it."

“The department offered new recruits $15,000 signing bonuses and $10,000 relocation allowances while phasing out requirements to have either college credits, military service or previous police work. All that's now required is two years' work experience — any work experience.”

“The department also sought state waivers to hire applicants with criminal records. And the police academy even dropped timing requirements on physical fitness drills and removed running entirely because too many people were failing,” Davis added.

In the Nichols’ incident, director Davis, who took over in June 2021, said supervision of less experienced officers is an urgent need, noting her Memphis department is investigating why a supervisor failed to respond to Nichols’ arrest. This happened despite a policy that requires a ranking officer to go to the scene when pepper spray or a stun gun is used. Officers used both on Nichols.

“If that had happened, somebody could have been there to intercept what happened,” Davis told the AP in an interview last month. Memphis police did confirm the five officers did not have an assigned supervisor.

Qualifications for a police officer are critical, as is training and accountability.

The five Memphis officers were part of the SCORPION unit, created in October 2021 to deal with rising violent crime. The Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in our Neighborhoods had the mandate to stem homicides, assaults and robberies. I personally would question if a traffic stop, such as with Nichols, would be “violent crime.”

There must be more to this story. Nichols reportedly never was given the reason for the traffic stop or if he were under arrest—all policy violations.

Of the five SCORPION team officers now charged with second-degree murder in Nichols’ Jan. 7 beating, two had only a couple of years on the force and none had more than six years’ experience.

On Feb. 17, all pleaded not guilty to charges of second-degree murder, aggravated kidnapping, aggravated assault, and official misconduct and oppression for their role in the attack on Nichols during the Jan. 7 traffic stop.

National Public Radio reported that four of the five former Memphis Police officers who have been charged in the death of Nichols had previous infractions with the department, according to Memphis police personnel records shared with NPR.

Adding more concern to the incident, The New York Times reported: “As Tyre Nichols sat propped against a police car, bloodied, dazed and handcuffed after being beaten by a group of Memphis police officers, one of those officers took a picture of him and sent it to at least five people, the Memphis Police Department said in documents released by the state.”

Additionally, “Sending the photograph, taken on a personal cellphone, to acquaintances, including at least one outside of the Police Department, violated policies about keeping information confidential, according to the documents.”

“But police officials said it was also part of a pattern of mocking, abusive and ‘blatantly unprofessional’ behavior by the officers that also included shouting profanities at Mr. Nichols, laughing after the beating and ‘bragging’ about their involvement,” The Times said.

AP further reported that, “A federal lawsuit filed Feb. 7 accuses the same officers now charged with murdering Nichols, 29, with also violating the rights of another man from the same neighborhood as Nichols during a similarly violent arrest three days before Nichols’ arrest.”

As well, citizen complaints against the involved officers reportedly abound, as do policy violations. Why were these issues overlooked?

The Memphis incident perhaps is a lesson in how reduced standards in the face of recruitment desperation result in tragic consequences for law enforcement, suspects, communities and society as a whole. Hopefully, as more information comes out, what actually happened and why will become clearer. The DOJ investigation may help.

Excessive use of force is a newsworthy policing problem. The looming question is how to solve that problem and maintain public trust. I do not have that answer, but addressing policing problems is critical. The issues are many.

Law enforcement qualification concerns are everywhere. In my Arkansas county, a deputy vacancy opened some time ago. I got the name of the new hire and asked a retired deputy friend about the individual. His response was that “we got the best of the worst.” A worrisome statement, but a sign of the times.

In a June 7, 2022, Gun Talk article “Recent Shootings - A Duty to Protect?” I wrote, “Keep a simple fact in mind. The cops do not have a duty to protect you, or anyone.” Effective policing is a deterrent to crime, but not the answer. Your daily protection truly belongs to you.

I will say most law-enforcement officers and leadership “do it by the book” and understand citizens’ rights and their own. Unfortunately there are a few “bad apples” that cast a huge shadow, as we see in Memphis.

And what can you do to protect yourself if a traffic stop or warrant goes wrong? Chances are this never will happen to you, but here are some guidelines to consider, just in case.

Know your rights. Ask if you are under arrest and why. In a traffic stop and armed, know if you need to inform the officer. Determine as best you can if an officer needs a warrant to conduct a search. Comply with officer commands. If possible, document such a police encounter. Consider an audio-recording app on your cell phone, or better yet, hope you have a good civilian witness with you.

All of us need to understand how law enforcement works, or may not. Keep up on policing news, use-of-force concerns, legislation and what “probable cause” means for arrest or search.

Cornell Law School clarifies the term with: “A lack of probable cause will render a warrantless arrest invalid, and any evidence resulting from that arrest (physical evidence, confessions, etc.) will have to be suppressed.” I would question if probable cause existed in the Nichols’ incident, but there may be much more to this story.

Follow signs of the times to help you Stay safe, be prepared. ~ Mike

Mike Sampson
Mike now calls Northwestern Arkansas home, but has lived and worked in several states and internationally. He has been an independent contractor and consultant since 2006 specializing in risk management, emergency management and training. In addition to work as a law-enforcement planner and technical writer with the Boise, Idaho, Police Department, he has experience in journalism, crop and animal agriculture, dryland farming for 20 years in western Kansas, plant and animal diseases, pandemic influenza, agroterrorism, bioterrorism, food safety and healthcare marketing.

He has a journalism degree from the University of Missouri and has newspaper and agency writing and editing experience. At Washington State University in Pullman, he earned a master’s degree emphasizing adult education and communications.

While living in Lander, WY, Mike provided photographic coverage of the One-Shot Antelope Hunt for three years, and got to meet and accompany folks such as Chuck Yeager, Carroll Shelby, Buzz Aldrin, Dale Robertson and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf on their hunts. He also worked as an outfitter’s guide.

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