OP-ED: Prejudice and police brutality in law enforcement must change after Tyre Nichols murder
There is much to delve into regarding the murder of Tyre Nichols by members of the Memphis Police Department’s SCORPION Unit.
SCORPION, an acronym for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in our Neighborhoods, is an aggressive unit, proactive unit, not like many such units throughout the nation that are tasked with addressing the most crime-ridden areas in the cities they service.
It is a tough unit to be part of, where the propensity of coming into contact with violent offenders is exponentially greater than any other unit within a police department.
I was able to command such a unit for the Miami Police Department, then again years later, at a higher rank when I oversaw an entire Tactical Operation Section.
It is the type of unit that can keep you up at night.
But it is also the type of unit that reaps great rewards when you can improve the quality of life of a fearful, crime-ridden area of the city.
A fine line is all that separates an incredibly successful, well-loved by the community unit and what we are seeing right now in Memphis.
And while I will not go into to too much of the incident here, primarily because I do not know enough to accurately comment on, I will make this blanket statement that transcends this incident, this unit, and any other similar proactive, aggressive anti-violent crime unit throughout this nation:
Without adequate command and supervision, the light at the end of the tunnel will become an oncoming freight train.
Trust and law enforcement will derail into a tangled heap of anger and frustration that could make recovery efforts all but impossible.
But my focus here is a subsection of this horrible crime focusing what is the core issue here: police brutality.
I have read various recent articles among many different media and social media formats and have had some robust, respectful online conversations with some where the color of the officers was factored in.
Is it any less horrific that both the officers and the victim were black?
In this case, or in a white-on-white incident, can color be a factor? Can prejudice exist?
I am not telling you that was a factor at all.
But can you automatically discount it?
It is worth exploring if only to create healthy debate.
Civil rights were undoubtedly trampled upon, be it black-on-black, white-on-black, black-on-white, or white-on-white.
I think we are all in agreement.
The sole focus should be that an innocent man lost his life at the hands of police and the brutality they meted out!
So how did it get to that point?
More importantly, why did it get to that point?
Following a lot of comments looking to minimize this horrid incident because of the color of the officers matched that of the victim is as disingenuous as actually believing that any one group holds a monopoly regarding prejudice.
Fact is, while racism may not be the root cause of what took place a few weeks ago, you cannot discount the fact that certain prejudices may have been at work.
Prejudice is defined as a preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.
Pre-judgements may have been made that led to the stop of Mr. Nichols.
Pre-judgments may have then be put in motion when Mr. Nichols did not act in the way the officers thought he was supposed to.
When all the facts come in, you may be able to draw a straight line connecting the words pre-judgments, prejudices, and perhaps a more well-known word: profiling.
There is a difference between prejudices and bigotry or racism, and it is important to note that.
Furthermore, one can hold prejudices against his/her own color/group.
As a white man, it is certainly possible to make prejudgments of other white people.
For example, I may hold Northeastern establishment white men who teach higher education in Ivy League Schools with disdain thinking they are uppity, or perhaps I hold a hold a despicable derision for poor white people who live in trailer parks believing they may be accustomed to thievery.
As wrong as that would be, it would be far worse if I allowed it to control how I treated them from a law enforcement capacity.
So, can white cops profile white citizens?
Can Latin cops profile Latin Citizens?
Can black cops profile black citizens?
Again, that is not to say that happened here at all, but it is to say that it must not be disregarded from the realm of possibility.
If a unit tasked with putting a dent in violent crimes plaguing an area, it is quite possible that everyone they meet could be looked at as an enemy combatant.
We are not talking counter-insurgency strategies here; you know, “winning the hearts and minds of the people.”
That task is often reserved for community relation type of units, who do an outstanding job by the way.
But that is not what Street Crimes Units do.
Back to police brutality, which, incidentally is too broad a description.
- Was supervision out in the field with the unit? A sergeant’s job is not to get his/her officers out of trouble. Instead, it is to keep them from getting into trouble in the first place. A unit of this type needs a supervisor with them at all times for a variety of reasons at all times.
- Was there a duty to intervene (that transcends any rank structure) when an officer sees cop going too far? If there was, it failed horribly. Shouldn’t a cop try to do the right thing, but beyond the obvious, try to save another cop’s career and/or freedom before things get out of hand?
- The “I ain’t getting involved” or “I ain’t ratting on my brother” paradigm must change NOW! When a cop stands mute, he/she will ultimately get called up to Internal Affairs, and the question will be the same: “Why didn’t you come forward?” Now, this cop, who was not directly involved in the case, becomes the “getaway” driver who will reap some heavy discipline up to an including termination and/or charges. (It should be noted, when a female officer tried doing the right in Broward County months ago, her sergeant, the officer she was trying to protect, grabbed her by the throat. He has subsequently been charged as well he should have been)
- Was a proper and in-depth Internal Affairs check done on all members of the unit to determine their functionality within such a unit PRIOR to their inclusion?
Credit to the Memphis Police Department and leadership for jumping on this immediately and taking the necessary action.
It is a roadmap for other agencies whether they are a heavyweight department such as NYPD, Chicago, Los Angeles, or a five-person flyweight department in the middle of nowhere.
What makes heavyweight departments successful is exactly the same things that make the flyweight departments successful.
The same holds true when things aren’t done properly.
After George Floyd, we in law enforcement cringed.
After Uvalde, we cringed.
Now, we cringe again.
The prejudices I spoke of earlier in this article now may manifest against law enforcement from the citizens we proudly serve because of the actions of a few.
Is that not the way it always seems to be?
Things need to change.
I am tired of cringing.
David Magnusson is a retired police chief with 36 ½ years of law enforcement experience having spent 30 of these years with the Miami Police Department retiring as an assistant chief. He was chief of the Havelock Police Department in the Marine Corps City of Havelock, North Carolina, home to Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station. He returned to South Florida as chief of the El Portal Police Department.
He chaired the COVID and Domestic Violent Extremism Committees for the Association of Miami Dade County Chiefs of police. He teaches about Hate Crimes, Violent Extremism, and Inclusive Policing to law enforcement agencies.
A historian, Magnusson has written on military and presidential history topics. He is a diehard baseball (St. Louis Cardinals) and boxing fan. Magnusson resides in South Florida with his wife. Their children and grandchildren are never too far away.
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