The Wrong Epiphany

Posted in: Law Enforcement

I ended my last essay with a provocative claim: Though today there is a long line waiting to bash it, the fact is that the SCORPION unit was doing exactly what Memphis leaders inside and outside the Police Department wanted it to do. Before the filmed murder of Tyre Nichols, no one objected to SCORPION’s casual, quotidian brutality. At least, no one in a position of power. On the contrary, city elders heaped praise upon the unit and credited it with bringing crime rates down. But now that the inevitable has happened, all the good people in Memphis are shocked and appalled.

It is hard for me to conceal my contempt for this belated epiphany. It’s not as if the unit operated in the shadows. Quite the opposite; as befits an occupying army, SCORPION operations were conspicuously aggressive. By design, its officers deliberately communicated a menacing air of overwhelming force and the willingness to use it. They were merely the latest iteration of “jump out squads,” versions of which have terrorized various urban neighborhoods for decades.

As I have said before, if you want to understand the culture of this unit, the most important video is not the footage from the pole camera that caught the five officers beating Mr. Nichols to death, but the first video, which captured the moments after he stopped his car. At this point, the police knew nothing about Mr. Nichols except that he was a Black man who had allegedly driven recklessly. They had no reason to believe he was armed or violent and even to this day, no officer has suggested they had ever seen him before. They don’t even imply that they knew him by reputation. To them, he was simply a young Black male motorist who may have driven recklessly, and nothing more. Yet there is no way to describe the officers’ behavior except as aggressive, abusive, belligerent, and profane. And this on a public street in the early evening, for all the world to watch.

If anyone in power wanted to know how SCORPION operated, all they had to do is ask the people who lived under its boot. If politicians and the media were ignorant about SCORPION, it is only because they didn’t care enough to ask. But it’s equally likely that they knew and didn’t give a damn. This is what it means to be marginalized: No one in power pays attention to the reality of your life until the worst has happened, and even then, they listen only to the extent that your story fits their narrative.

And the narrative taking shape is that this is a policing problem and nothing more. In his State of the Union Address, President Biden made the predictable call for better police training, as though the problem of police brutality rests within the police department alone. But I believe Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis when she told the Public Safety Committee of the Memphis City Council that Memphis officers had “exceptional” training. And we should take Memphis officer Justin Smith at his word when he told an administrative hearing that he “utilized the training and defensive tactics provided to [him] as a Memphis police officer in attempting to handcuff” Nichols.

Here’s the hard truth: When they arrested Nichols, the officers in the SCORPION unit did exactly what they were trained to do. Exactly what they were incentivized to do by a department that made them the tip of the spear in the latest war on crime. Exactly what they were encouraged to do by a city impatient for results. Certainly, this is not the case for the brutal beating that followed, but that beating took place only because Memphis first created, unleashed, and championed a police unit that demanded unquestioning obedience to authority, no matter how abusive. When Nichols was not sufficiently obsequious, five warriors with wounded pride made him pay with his life. The officers in the SCORPION unit were heroes until the minute they weren’t, and everyone could’ve—and should’ve—seen that minute coming from the instant SCORPION first hit the Memphis streets.

So, yes, we are right to ask how we might “fix” the Memphis Police Department. It is a department that badly needs a change in culture, as I have argued before. But we must understand our complicity in creating the problem. That is why it makes no sense—indeed, why it is counterproductive—to suppose we can solve the problem merely by pointing an accusing finger at the department or the Chief, or even worse, merely by prosecuting the five officers who killed Nichols. Yes, these officers should be prosecuted, but this is not a problem that can be solved simply by blaming the department or anyone within it.

Along with the prosecution, this is an occasion for a Sentinel Event Review. We must ask, capaciously and compassionately, what happened? We must expand our lens to the very broadest limits of causation, going far beyond the narrow questions about the evening Tyre Nichols died, the training these officers received, or even why Chief Davis created the unit in the first place, even though she had to have known the violent history of comparable units across the country. We must even go beyond the pressures she faced from the mayor or other Memphis leaders. Answering these questions would shed light on the problem but would not solve it.

For behind all these questions lies a conception of “them.” The murder of Tyre Nichols calls on us to investigate, at the deepest, most painful level, the fraught complexity of us-and-them in Memphis. And do not suppose that because Memphis city leadership is largely Black, the criminal legal system in the city is untroubled by these divisions. If such a naïve notion could survive the complex racial history of punishment in the last half century, articulated so well by Yale law professor James Forman, it certainly should not survive a video of five Black officers beating to death a Black suspect.

No, the belief that “we” are threatened until “they” are brought to heel cannot be easily contained within narrow categories of race or class. Yet the belief can be resisted. It can be overcome. But only if it is confronted directly, honestly, and openly. Whom does the Memphis Police Department think they are policing and why was this understanding accepted, tacitly if not explicitly, by city leaders? Why does an urgent call for public safety produce an indifference to public suffering? Which public matters to Memphis? In Memphis, who is us, and who is them?

And when Memphis comes at last to the epiphany that there is no them, there is only us, let me know.

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