the system

Tyre Nichols and the End of Police Reform

His death is evidence that cosmetic change can’t excise the rot of American law enforcement.

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

We now have access to video of Tyre Nichols’s alleged murder, which started with an assault on January 7, ended with his death on January 10, and was captured in police body-camera footage made public at 7 p.m. Eastern on Friday. The 29-year-old Black man was beaten by five Memphis cops in a display of violence so savage that officials spent the lead-up scrambling to head off the expected outcry. President Biden called for calm, Memphis police chief Cerelyn Davis proclaimed the attack a “failing of basic humanity,” and Shelby County district attorney Steven J. Mulroy promptly charged the officers with second-degree murder.

Nichols’s mother, RowVaughn Wells, found herself drafted unceremoniously into the role of peacekeeper, which has become a familiar duty among parents whose kids have been slain by cops. “I want each and every one of you to protest in peace,” she said at a vigil for her son on Thursday. “You can get your point across, but we don’t need to tear up our city because we do have to live in them.”

Whatever happens in Memphis or elsewhere these next few days, the Nichols case has provoked the most anxious official response to any act of police brutality since George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis in 2020. It also followed the worst year for police killings yet recorded: Cops killed 1,176 people in 2022. And it happened in a city that had embraced the most widely touted police-reform measures on offer after Floyd’s death and the ensuing protests, revealing the limits of that agenda.

Federal-reform talks may have stalled after that tumultuous summer, but some localities rushed to implement new policies aimed at curbing police violence. The most dramatic was Minneapolis’s since-abandoned proposal to disband its police department. Memphis was one of several cities with more modest ambitions that turned to “8 Can’t Wait,” a set of measures whose architects claimed could “decrease police violence by 72 percent” — stuff like banning chokeholds, mandating de-escalation before shooting people, and limiting when cops were allowed to open fire at moving vehicles.

The list was the brainchild of Campaign Zero, an anti-police-violence organization founded after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson in 2014 and operated since 2020 by veteran activists DeRay Mckesson, Sam Sinyangwe, and Brittany Packnett Cunningham. Mckesson in particular was controversial among Black Lives Matter stalwarts: Despite his commitment to the cause, he had a knack for monopolizing media coverage and regularly disagreeing with other organizers (his early support for Hillary Clinton in 2016 was a big point of contention).

The rollout of “8 Can’t Wait” was greeted with the kind of furious movement backlash that had, until that point, been mostly relegated to backstage drama. Radical proposals like defunding and abolishing the police were in wider circulation than ever before by then, and many activists wanted to harness that energy to secure bigger systemic overhauls. In their view, Campaign Zero’s program was neither bold nor statistically sound enough to guide such a critical policy response. Advocates Cherrell Brown and Philip V. McHarris co-authored a widely circulated Medium post that called for it to be retracted, itemizing all the ways its key proposals had been tried before and failed. Even less radical local activists seemed wary. “I do applaud their efforts,” said Al Lewis of the Memphis Coalition of Concerned Citizens, back when the city council first started looking into “8 Can’t Wait” in 2020. “But I would like to see it with some more meat.”

This spiraling discord led Packnett Cunningham to resign from Campaign Zero and Sinyangwe to issue an apology, conceding that the organization had failed to meet the moment. But Memphis had already leapt on what were now the most politically palatable reforms on the table. Abolitionists had since published a competing list, “8 to Abolition,” whose tenets would end up functioning more as a wedge issue for Republicans and a scapegoat for Democrats’ electoral failings than an option that cities were seriously weighing. The result was a slate of reforms that neither meaningfully changed how cops operate nor provided an effective check on Memphis’s aggressive new crime-fighting measures, including the formation of the menacingly acronymed SCORPION unit. The officers in that unit are now allegedly responsible for Nichols’s death. Memphis meanwhile, has a dedicated website proudly proclaiming that its police have implemented all of the “8 Can’t Wait” recommendations.

The crisis in Memphis is the latest lesson in how limited the most popular reforms are, including those that might have seemed like game-changers not so long ago. Body cameras may have given us visual evidence of Nichols’s deathly beating, but were no deterrent. The federal response is already assuming a familiar shape. “To deliver real change, we must have accountability when law-enforcement officers violate their oaths,” wrote Biden on Thursday, years after the criminal convictions of Michael Slager, Jason Van Dyke, and Derek Chauvin landed them in prison but did not slow the rate of police killings.

Severely curtailing the power of cops and dismantling America’s policing infrastructure have been dismissed as political poison and ruinous to public safety. But the alternative is a system where inevitable atrocities arise instead, forcing grieving moms and rattled officials to beg people not to burn down their cities.

The fact that all five cops who killed Nichols are Black is further evidence that we’re not dealing with a problem of individual prejudice and unaccountability, but something more fundamental to the job of policing. For years we’ve been assured that one of the major deficiencies of American law enforcement is that local forces don’t reflect the demographics of the areas they’re tasked with patrolling — the almost all-white police force in Ferguson in 2014 was a typical example, which fueled a regime of harassment, theft, and death targeting the city’s Black residents. The Memphis police force, by contrast, is almost 60 percent Black, roughly on pace with the city’s 65 percent Black population, and is overseen by a Black woman police chief. Following the logic that reflective law-enforcement agencies will naturally enhance fairness, Tennessee’s second-most populous city should be a model of equity.

In reality, Black Memphians are still trapped in a web of segregation, suspicion, and the second-highest poverty rate of any city in America with more than 500,000 residents, disadvantages that are overseen and patrolled most directly by the police. Tyre Nichols was not killed by a “bad apple” or a bigoted white interloper with a badge, but by a group of five cops united by a common sense of purpose and a legal mandate to determine who lives or dies. The consequences for almost everyone involved have been dire — Nichols is dead, his family and community are in anguish, and facing criminal charges in the most prison-happy nation on Earth is no small thing, even for a cop. Nichols’s death may lead to new calls for police reform, but reform can only go so far if the police are operating as intended.

Tyre Nichols and the End of Police Reform