The widespread outrage over the brutal beating and subsequent death of Tyre D. Nichols by Memphis police officers last month is justifiable.
Nichols, 29 years of age, was driving when he was pulled over Jan. 7. He fled the scene on foot after a confrontation with the officers.
They subdued him and beat him viciously. He died in a hospital Jan. 10.
This atrocious killing sparked protests across the nation. Another unarmed black man died due to the horrific actions of police officers; the violence this time was by five black law enforcement agents.
The Memphis Police Department announced on Jan. 20 that the five black police officers had been fired. One white officer, who also was at the scene, was fired Feb. 3; another unidentified officer has been suspended. On Jan. 24, the five black individuals were charged with second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression.
It’s inconceivable that a traffic stop could result in such a violent death. Police officials said that Nichols was pulled over for reckless driving.
If Nichols was driving recklessly, officers had good reason to stop his vehicle. Someone behind the wheel of a car who doesn’t appear to have control is a hazard to himself and others.
But that’s one of the mysteries of this tragedy. We don’t really know how Nichols was driving other than what the officers on the scene reported. So there’s a question mark over whether this traffic stop was justified.
However, there certainly was no cause for the officers to become violent. They had Nichols’s vehicle in their possession, so he no longer posed a potential threat to others as the driver of a car. And police had the capability to determine who he was and locate him later on, so his fleeing the scene did not offer any excuse to subdue and beat him mercilessly.
We understand that law enforcement agents look upon just about any suspect as a danger to other people. They don’t know what such an individual will do on the loose, so bringing this person into custody is obviously a priority.
But in evaluating police tactics, we must keep things in perspective. It makes sense for officers to make a traffic stop if they believe the driver risks the safety of others while on the road. Law enforcement agents, though, cannot ignore the fact that suspects are citizens and have rights — one of them being the right not to die while in police custody.
The 2020 protests over the death of George Floyd resulted in reform measures being enacted in various parts of the country, including New York state. It will take time to assess how effective these new policies will be moving forward.
There obviously must be additional reform within some police departments. That will be up to those overseeing these departments and representatives of the communities they serve.
However, there is much about what occurred in Nichols’s case that we don’t yet know. The primary question here is what motivated the officers to act so violently toward someone they stopped for a traffic violation.
Many people have offered their conclusions about what the real problem is, and such responses are unsubstantiated. The officers involved have not publicly discussed what drove them to beat Nichols as they did, so any opinions on their behavior are speculative at best.
That’s not helpful at this stage. All we can do is monitor our local police departments about how they treat people they interact with and hold them accountable for any problems they create.
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