It’s the Culture, Stupid

Posted in: Law Enforcement

If you head to the website of the Memphis Police Department, you will find a link to the Department Policies and Procedures. And if you click on that link, you will be brought to a 734-page document that sets out, in meticulous detail, the rules Memphis officers must follow on the job, current as of January 31, 2022. And if you scroll down the 34-page table of contents, as I did, you will find reference to Section 8 of Chapter 2, RESPONSE TO RESISTANCE, which sets the rules governing the use of force by a Memphis officer, including deadly force.

And if you scroll down the document in search of Chapter 2, Section 8, RESPONSE TO RESISTANCE, as I did, you will find… nothing. Those pages have been removed from the manual. At least, they are no longer part of the document available on the department’s website. Section 7 of Chapter 2, governing the possession of weapons, now leads directly into Section 9 on misdemeanors.

In all the coverage of the Memphis Police Department since five of its officers killed Tyre Nichols, no one seems to have noticed this gap in the department manual. I don’t know when or why the Department removed these pages, but let’s assume Nichols’ murder has inspired the department to re-examine its approach to force.

This of course would be a good thing; it is better to have good rules than bad. But no one should imagine that tinkering with the rules will, by itself, solve the problem that led to Nichols’ murder. Whenever someone cries, “there ought to be a law!” (or its close cousin, “there ought to be a prosecution”), I am reminded of Judge Learned Hand’s justly famous observation about liberty, now nearly 80 years old:

I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it.

What the judge said of liberty applies equally well to dignity: As I have written elsewhere, we have repeatedly inscribed the right to dignity in constitutions, laws, and treaties. Yet I hope no one supposes that words on a page are enough to restrain a fist in the air. They certainly never have before. Lynching was always a crime on the books. It just wasn’t always a crime on the street, which is where it mattered.

The impotence of the written word is a truth the Memphis Police Department ought to understand. In September 2020, four months after the murder of George Floyd, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland convened an advisory council that included clergy, civil rights leaders, legislators, public defenders, and police officers, and charged it with “reimagining policing” in the city. The group issued its final recommendations in June 2021. This document is also available on the Department’s website.

The Council’s recommendations focused on four areas, the first of which was the use of excessive force, which tells you that police brutality in Memphis did not begin with the assault on Tyre Nichols. The Council recommended that the Department “update [its] excessive force policy and procedures[,] expand the definition of excessive force and provide clear procedures for internal and external review of allegations of excessive force.” In an update added approximately a year later (summer 2022), the Memphis Police Department reported that “all Use-of-Force policies have been modified and updated to align with national best practices.” These “modified and updated” policies are the pages that have now been removed from the department manual.

In other words, Memphis already had cutting-edge use-of-force policies in place when five of its officers beat Nichols to death, making good on the prayer of a sixth officer to “stomp his ass,” and when a dozen or so others stood around indifferently while Nichols lay inert on the ground. So, while it is good that Memphis will again rewrite its policies, I trust the Department understands that the obligation to treat the citizens of Memphis with dignity and respect lies in the hearts of the men and women on the Memphis police force, and when it dies there, no manual can save it.

So how do we instill this attitude? If the rules alone don’t do the trick, what will? For one thing, I hope we have also abandoned the reductionist, racist view that simply hiring Black officers will get the job done. We should diversify police departments because diversity is a worthwhile goal and because, in the abstract, Black officers are more likely to understand how policing has historically targeted communities of color, not because we imagine that any Black officer would be better than every White (or Brown or any other color) officer.

Broadly speaking, we are talking about organizational culture and its stubborn resistance to change. As the writer and management guru Peter Drucker famously quipped, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” An organization needs the right strategy, which it must codify in rules and policies. And it needs the right people to execute this strategy. But if the organizational culture of a police department does not embrace dignity and respect, and if it does not instantiate that belief in everything it does, the best policies and procedures are just castles in the sand.

I will write more in coming essays about the challenge of fixing a broken culture. For now, it is enough to emphasize one thing: The culture of a police department is not created by the police alone. Some people resist this. They want to believe that bad policing is simply a product of bad police. Most of all, they do not want to believe that they could have any responsibility for the culture of a police department. But the police exist within a broader social setting and are routinely subjected to intense outside pressures that distort their work. If you doubt this, do a quick search for the following terms: Memphis rising crime 2020. You will find page after page of articles and broadcasts lamenting the surge in violent crime in Memphis and wondering what the police were doing about it.

In October 2020, for instance, the Commercial Appeal reported that murders in Memphis had “rocketed” in the first three quarters of 2020, easily surpassing the previous record. The city eclipsed the record again the next year. In January 2021, a headline from the local FOX News station complained, “Violent crime continues to be a problem in Memphis and Shelby County.” In April 2022, a local TV station reported on a study that found Memphis had the fifth highest homicide rate in the country. And two months before the police killed Tyre Nichols, the headline in The Atlantic complained, “The Murders in Memphis Aren’t Stopping.” Despite “extraordinary” funding, “the city’s police seem unable to control crime.” And I just selected those few; there are many others.

If you think this pressure had no effect on the culture of the Memphis Police Department, you are very much mistaken. The Department created the much- and justly-maligned SCORPION unit in this super-heated environment. SCORPION was launched in October 2021, and in his State of the City Address the following January, Mayor Strickland praised the unit and vowed that it would tackle “violent crimes such as homicides, aggravated assaults, robberies, and carjackings that occur throughout the city.” He noted approvingly that in just four months, SCORPION officers had already made 566 arrests, as though arrests were a virtue in and of themselves.

Back then, practically no one was complaining about the unit’s casual brutality—brutality that now seems obvious to everyone. No one, that is, except the marginalized Memphis residents caught on the receiving end. On the contrary, city elders praised the unit for bringing the crime rate down, and if it weren’t for the filmed murder of Tyre Nichols, not only would the unit still be operating, it would still be a prized position in the Department and leaders in other cities would point enviously at Memphis and ask, “How come we don’t have a SCORPION unit?”

When we think about changing police culture, it is vitally important to understand this: Though everyone today is quick to disavow it, the fact is that SCORPION was doing exactly what Memphis leaders inside and outside the Department wanted it to do. Unless Memphis grapples with the full implications of this reality, meaningful change will be impossible.

After this essay appeared, Chapter 2, Section 8, RESPONSE TO RESISTANCE, reappeared in the department manual.

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