January 28, 2023

Tragedy and a leadership challenge in Memphis


PERF members,

After a traffic stop and a confrontation, a man is dead and five officers are charged with murder. Can this really be happening again? And has anything changed in American policing? It’s fair to question whether anything’s changed, though I think the response to Tyre Nichols’s death at the hands of five Memphis police officers shows that some progressive police chiefs are taking a different approach when responding to these incidents.

I’m writing this on Friday afternoon and have not yet seen the footage of the incident (which is set to be released tonight), but based on the statements made by people who have, we all should be outraged by these officers’ actions. Both Memphis Police Chief C.J. Davis and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director David Rausch have strongly condemned the actions they’ve seen in the footage. Chief Davis called the officers’ actions “heinous, reckless, and inhumane” and said, “In my 36 years, I would have to say I don’t think I’ve ever been more horrified and disgusted.” Director Rausch called the actions “absolutely appalling” and said, “Let me be clear: What happened here does not at all reflect proper policing. This was wrong. This was criminal.”

Chief Davis and Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy acted quickly to fire and criminally charge the officers. Chief Davis fired the officers on January 20, and on Thursday, District Attorney Mulroy charged the officers with second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct, and official oppression.

I want to highlight two elements of Chief Davis’s actions. The first is that she was able to take quick action because the Memphis Police Department had strong policies in place. The agency’s policy requires officers to intervene and report improper conduct and to render first aid to anyone injured by police actions. Chief Davis cited both those policies, as well as excessive use of force, when firing these officers.

The second is that Chief Davis took administrative action before the criminal case concluded. Timely action is important to both the community and the agency. When videos and investigations reveal actions that are in violation of agency policy, police leaders should act expeditiously to assure the community that the department can take responsibility for its officers’ actions. Often community members call for the police to respond to publicly available video, only to be told that the department “doesn’t want to rush the case.” And it’s important for good cops to see their leaders setting clear expectations and enforcing discipline for actions that those good cops know is wrong.

I commend Chief Davis for her quick action and blunt, honest statements, and I think these are a sign that some aspects of American policing have changed. Twenty years ago, I doubt these officers would’ve been fired within two weeks and charged within three weeks. And I doubt police officials would’ve clearly denounced the officers’ actions in the way that Chief Davis, Director Rausch, and others have this week, though officials twenty years ago didn’t have the benefit of body-worn camera video footage.

This incident is likely to stay in the spotlight for some time, placing an added burden on the hundreds of thousands of good cops around the country and making it even harder for police agencies to recruit officers and rebuild public trust. While police officials’ quick actions and clear communication in response to the killing may help prevent this terrible situation from growing worse, our most urgent challenge is to stop these incidents from happening in the first place.

As details of this case became public this week, I was in San Diego with nearly two hundred police officials from all over the country for a national conference about PERF’s ICAT training program. Attendees shared lessons they’ve learned from studying videos of use-of-force incidents. Trainers from Minneapolis to Chicago to Monterey, California discussed how they “go upstream” to identify ways to prevent police use of force. I came away inspired and hopeful that agencies are working to teach officers how to avoid tragic incidents and prevent injuries to citizens and officers. I don’t want to suggest that ICAT training could’ve prevented this specific incident. But we need to redouble our efforts—whether through ICAT training or other training and policy changes—to ensure that no family has to endure what Mr. Nichols’s family is having to endure right now.

Update from Ukraine

My friend Howard Buffett, whose foundation’s generous donation made it possible for PERF to provide Under Armour boots and ColdGear to police in Ukraine, sent me this picture he took of General Andrii Nebytov of the Kyiv Regional Police distributing these boots and clothes to police officers stationed in eastern Ukraine.

Our thoughts continue to be with the police in Ukraine as they operate under unthinkable circumstances, including ongoing missile strikes and the recent death of Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskyi, who was responsible for the police and emergency services. General Ihor Klymenko, who is head of the National Police of Ukraine and I met with two weeks ago, is now serving as the Acting Minister of the Interior.