Posted 2/20/23


In Memphis, unremitting violence helps sabotage the craft

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel. During the evening hours of January 7, Memphis Police Department’s “Scorpion” anti-crime unit set the stage for yet another memorial to police abuse. A few days later, after Tyre Nichols died from his injuries, residents adorned the spot of his final encounter, transforming a residential streetcorner into an ode for a twenty-nine year old California transplant whom few had really known.

     That place, the intersection of Castlegate and Bear Creek lanes, was where officers intercepted Mr. Nichols after he fled from their colleagues. His first encounter, at Baines and Ross Roads, where authorities say they stopped him for reckless driving, was captured by a pole-mounted camera and the bodycam of a late-arriving cop. (Click here for our condensed version of the video.)

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     Unfortunately, that’s the only video that’s been released of that first stop. So we can’t tell whether there really was a pressing, let alone legitimate reason to make the stop. Nor whether Mr. Nichols, who is depicted being dragged out of his car by an angry, cursing cop, had really refused to peacefully exit the vehicle.

All along, Mr. Nichols speaks calmly. But he evidently offered some physical resistance, and the officers used pepper-spray and a Taser (third image). Even so, Mr. Nichols quickly managed to break free and run off (fourth image).

     As members of a special team, the officers who made the stop were in an unmarked car. That could have worried Mr. Nichols from the start. Their aggressiveness and crude language may have also come as a shock. We don’t know whether Mr. Nichols was under the influence of drugs, leading him to be uncooperative and combative, such as what’s been attributed to persons in the throes of “excited delirium.” Police later asked Mr. Nichols’ mother if her son was on drugs, as he had displayed “superhuman strength” when they tried to apply handcuffs. But she said that the tall, skinny man suffered from Crohn’s disease. That’s a substantial disability. And during the struggle at the first stop location, one of the cops got accidentally hit with pepper-spray (click here for a brief clip that depicts the officer’s partner rinsing out his eyes.) That dousing might have relaxed the cops’ grip on Mr. Nichols.

     Whatever enabled the man’s escape, the initial encounter demonstrates a lack of tactical aptitude. Contrast that with what happened at the start of the disastrous incident after which this essay is entitled, the murder of George Floyd, when a rookie cop got the drug-addled man out of his car, in handcuffs and on the sidewalk without causing him any harm. Floyd’s supposedly drug-induced “superhuman strength” came later, when he violently resisted being seated in a police car. (See the testimony of MPD Lt. Johnny Mercil and MPD medical support coordinator Officer Nicole Mackenzie during Chauvin’s trial).

     Once he broke free, Mr. Nichols hot-footed it to his mother’s house. It’s located in one of Memphis’ nicer areas, about a half-mile away. Alas, another Scorpion crew caught up with him as he entered the neighborhood. That encounter, which involved twice as many cops as the first, was grotesquely violent

from the start, with officers mercilessly kicking and pummeling Mr. Nichols (left image) and repeatedly dousing him with pepper spray (right image). About six minutes later, once Mr. Nichols was virtually

unresponsive, they dragged him away (left image) and propped him against one of their cars (right image.) (Click here for our condensed version of the polecam video, and here and here for our condensed versions of officer bodycam videos.)

     Most of our information came from the videos and the veritable flood of news coverage. (Click here for the Associated Press Nichols “hub”, with links to each of their stories.) Other than the videos, little has been officially released. On January 20, two weeks after the encounter, Memphis PD Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis posted a brief notice announcing the firing, earlier that day, of the five officers who encountered Mr. Nichols at the streetcorner. One week later she delivered a video address. Her remarks (click here for a transcript) implicitly attributed their “egregious” behavior for his death. Calling her cops’ conduct “heinous, reckless and inhumane”, a violation of “basic human rights” and “the opposite” of what they were sworn to do, she promised “a complete and independent review…on all of the Memphis Police Department's specialized units.” (According to the AP, as of February 7 six Memphis officers have been fired over the incident and a seventh was removed from duty.)

     Still, the Chief didn’t say that police were solely to blame for the horrific outcome:

    I promise full and complete cooperation from the Memphis Police Department with the Department of Justice, the FBI, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, and the Shelby County District Attorney's office to determine the entire scope of facts that contributed to Tyree Nichols death.

     So far, none of these agencies have released their reports. Shelby County’s Coroner is also yet to publicly weigh in. However, according to a lawyer retained by the Nichols family, “preliminary findings” issued by “a highly regarded, nationally renowned forensic pathologist” revealed that Mr. Nichols “suffered extensive bleeding caused by a severe beating.” Whether drugs or a prior medical condition might played a role in his death is yet to be announced.

     Medical issues aside, did Mr. Nichols’ behavior during the initial stop make things worse? A police report filed by the “Scorpions” supposedly stated that Nichols was a suspect in an aggravated assault, that he was “sweating profusely and irate” when he got out of the car, that he grabbed for an officer’s gun, and that he pulled on the cops’ belts (ostensibly, to get a gun). But nothing was said about the officers’ use of force. Really, given the horrific police conduct captured on the videos, Mr. Nichols’ physical condition and behavior now seem beside the point. Fundamentally, we have a replay of another shameful saga. Had Derek Chauvin not forcibly held him down for those infamous six minutes, a man who had committed a (minor) crime, who did have drugs in his system, and who did exhibit seemingly “superhuman strength” would have come out alive.

     Had the Memphis cops not savagely beat Mr. Nichols, he, too would have unquestionably survived. But they did. So were they rogues from the start? Demetrius Haley, the officer who pulled Mr. Nichols from his car, was a former prison guard. Three years before becoming a cop he reportedly participated in a “savage beating” that led to a Federal lawsuit. Yet Memphis hired him anyway.

     “Three (In?)explicable Shootings” and “Black on Black” discuss other encounters between Black cops and Black citizens that ended poorly. But our essays are cluttered with examples of “easily rattled, risk-intolerant, impulsive or aggressive” White cops as well. And their deficiencies were often no secret. Consider the Minneapolis cop who shot and killed a 9-1-1 caller for the “crime” of walking up to his car. Not only did he stack up serious complaints during his first two years on the job, but his fitness to be a cop was questioned by psychiatrists when he was hired. And there’s the tragic November 2014 shooting of Tamir Rice, a 12-year old Cleveland boy. He was gunned down by a rookie who had been pressed to resign by his former agency. Here’s what that department’s deputy chief said:

    He could not follow simple directions, could not communicate clear thoughts nor recollections, and his handgun performance was dismal…I do not believe time, nor training, will be able to change or correct the deficiencies…

     How did “the craft of policing” sink to the level displayed by the “Scorpions”? Let’s start by assessing a central feature of the police workplace: crime. According to a recent survey by the Major Cities Chiefs Association, here’s where Memphis sat, violent crime-wise, during the first six months of last year:

(MCCA reported data for seventy agencies, but we only calculated crime rates per 100,000 pop. for the sixty metropolitan police departments whose population base could be readily determined. Also remember that these are six-month rates).

     Memphis’ violent crime problem is nothing new. Turning to the UCR, here’s how its 2015 and 2020 full-year crime rates compared with our “usual suspects” (L.A., Chicago and New York City):

Again, these are rates per 100,000 population. Their underlying frequencies are also very revealing. For example, Memphis (pop. 657,936) reported 135 murders and 11,449 violent crimes in 2015. Los Angeles (pop. 3,962,726), a city six times in population, suffered twice as many murders (282) and a bit more than twice as many violent crimes (25,156).

     And it gets worse within. Drawing violent crime data from the Memphis hub, and poverty data from the Census, we calculated full-year, per/100,000 rates for murder, aggravated assault and robbery for each of the city’s twenty-six unique ZIP codes. We used correlation (the “r” statistic) to assess the relationships between poverty and crime (“r” ranges from zero to one: zero means no relationship, one denotes a lock-step association):

These r’s suggest that poverty, murder and aggravated assault are essentially two sides of the same coin. And robbery isn’t far behind. These sobering messages are also conveyed by the graphs and the table (both list Zip’s by poverty, from low to high):

     Prior essays, most recently “What’s Up? Violence” and “Woke Up, America!”, emphasized the criminogenic effects of poverty. “Fix Those Neighborhoods!” pointed out that cities need lots of “prosperous neighborhoods” to keep their overall violence stat’s down. With nearly one in four residents in poverty, that’s where Memphis falls decidedly short. Its 2022 citywide murder rate, a nasty 33, is higher than the rates of LAPD’s notoriously violent 77th. Street Division (pop. 175,000), which came in at 30, and NYPD’s chronically beset 73rd. precinct (pop. 86,000), which scored an extreme (by Big Apple standards) 26. Indeed, the 37 per 100,000 rate where Mr. Nichols’ first encounter with police took place – Raines & Ross roads, Zip 38115 – is one of eleven that exceed the city’s overall 33; and most, by comfortable margins (38126, where more than half live in poverty, scored a soul-churning 106.)

    So what’s our point? Prosperity can give cops a relatively peaceful environment in which to ply their craft. But there’s precious little prosperity or peace in Memphis, a city literally awash in violence. It’s that carnage that in November 2021 led the police chief to deploy teams – they were impolitically named “Scorpion” – to conduct what are essentially stop-and-frisk campaigns. As one might have expected, their aggressive posture quickly generated blowback. That’s not unlike what similar projects encountered elsewhere. “A Recipe for Disaster” and “Turning Cops Into Liars” described the travails of LAPD’s Metro teams, which focused on violence-ridden “hot spots”. Its members were repeatedly accused of making needless stops, using excessive force, and justifying their unseemly behavior by lying on reports. Like issues long plagued the L.A. County Sheriff’s Dept., which continues struggling with “deputy gangs.” Similar problems have beset anti-crime campaigns in Chicago, New York City and elsewhere. Some of these programs were disbanded, but surges in violence that accompanied the pandemic brought many back.

     What happened in Memphis may not be unique. Its exhaustive visual documentation, though, is one for the record books. What’s more, it wasn’t just one or two cops, who could be blamed as outliers. So far, more than a dozen officers (including two Shelby County deputies) have been implicated in the brutal episode. Their “job done” nonchalance after pummeling Mr. Nichols – they mill about exchanging casual talk – fits that “culture of violence and bravado” which the head of Memphis’ NAACP chapter, Van Turner, believes has infected policing throughout the U.S. As we watched the videos, the thrashing conveyed an angry fusion reminiscent of how George Floyd was treated after he fought the cops. Punishing someone with a merciless beating, as in Memphis, or by relentlessly pinning them to the ground and ignoring their pleas, as in Minneapolis, really is “two sides of the same coin.”

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     What’s to be done? As usual, police executives have taken to rulemaking. A recently enacted LAPD regulation prohibits pretextual stops unless officers have “articulable information” that a citizen’s behavior could lead to serious injury or death. And there’s Chicago PD’s 5,777 word foot-chase policy, whose complexities led the police union to (justifiably, we think) characterize it as a “no-foot-chase” policy.

      Of course, limiting stops and chases will keep some terrible things from happening. Perhaps a balance can be struck so that imposing limits won’t encourage evildoers and compromise public safety. Still, having worked in policing, we’re skeptical that rules alone will keep cops from responding emotionally, and particularly in highly charged, violence-laden environments such as Memphis. What’s needed? We could start by frankly discussing such things in the academy and at all levels of police organizations. How can the craft of policing – it is an art form, by the way – be practiced so that it resists the unholy influences of the workplace? And we mean the whole environment: both citizens and cops.

     Give it a whirl. And if you do, let us know how it pans out!

UPDATES (scroll)

3/13/23  Beset by a shortage of applicants, Memphis P.D. dropped college-credit requirements in 2018 and began hiring candidates with a high-school diploma and work experience. Academy standards were lowered and grading was made far more lenient. Officers say that these and other easings in hiring and retention standards led to hiring the five officers who now face prosecution in the killing of Tyre Nichols.

3/9/23  At the request of Memphis officials, DOJ will conduct a review of its police department’s policies, practices, and training in regards to use of force and de-escalation. DOJ will also address the management of specialized units, such as the “Scorpion” team that killed Tyre Nichols. That incident has also led DOJ to embark on a program that will “produce a guide” for cities across the U.S. about the purposes, training and management of specialized teams.

Prompted by the 2020 killing of Breonna Taylor, DOJ’s civil rights inquiry into Louisville PD concludes that its officers engaged in a “pattern or practice” of First and Fourth Amendment violations, using excessive force, serving “invalid” warrants, and failing to properly announce their presence. Heavy criticism is levied on the deployment of aggressive “Viper” teams that made pretextual, often illegal stops in Black neighborhoods. Negotiations for a consent decree are reportedly in the works.

2/20/23  On February 18 Memphis police officer Geoffrey Redd succumbed to a gunshot wound sustained while on duty on February 2. On that day, Officer Redd and his partner responded to a call about a man who had trespassed on a local business, then entered a public library and threatened a patron. When the officers arrived at the library the suspect pulled a gun and opened fire, wounding officer Redd. His partner’s return fire killed the assailant. And during the early morning hours of February 19 gunfire broke out in the area of a Memphis nightclub, leaving one person dead and eleven wounded, five critically. Videos depict likely suspects but no arrests have yet been announced.

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The Craft of Policing


Neighborhoods special topic     Stop-and-Frisk and Hot Spots Special Section

What’s Up? Violence. Where? Where Else?     Massacres, in Slow-Mo     Woke Up, America!

Full Stop Ahead     Recipe for Disaster     Turning Cops Into Liars     Select – Don’t “Elect”

Punishment Isn’t a Cop’s Job (I)     Fix Those Neighborhoods!     Violent and Vulnerable

“SWAT” is a Verb     Did the Times Scapegoat L.A.’s Finest? (I)  (II)     Driven to Fail

Two Sides of the Same Coin     Three (In?)explicable Shootings     Too Much of a Good Thing?

Posted 2/3/23


Renewed concerns that police target Black persons roil Los Angeles

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel. In 2015 California legislators enacted Penal Code section 12525, the “Racial and Identity Profiling Advisory Act” (RIPA). Since 2018 all State and most local law enforcement agencies have been required to disclose public complaints of racial and identity profiling and furnish annual reports about pedestrian and vehicle stops (small agencies had until this year to comply.) Required information includes the reason for a stop, the race and ethnicity of pedestrians, drivers and other persons who influenced a stop decision, any use of force, and whether someone was detained or arrested, and why (for the official guide, click here.)

     A Board was formed to oversee the process. Alas, its weighty, just-released 2023 Annual Report doesn’t offer much hope:

    Over the past four years, the data collected under the Racial and Identity Profiling Act (“RIPA”) has provided empirical evidence showing disparities in policing throughout California. This year’s data demonstrates the same trends in disparities for all aspects of law enforcement stops, from the reason for stop to actions taken during stop to results of stop.

From their initial release, RIPA’s annual reports have blasted the seemingly unequal treatment of racial and ethnic minorities. Little has apparently improved:

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    Overall, the disparity between the proportion of stops and the proportion of residential population was greatest for Multiracial and Black individuals. Multiracial individuals were stopped 87.4 percent less frequently than expected, while Black individuals were stopped 144.2 percent more frequently than expected.

According to the report, Black persons comprised six percent of the State’s 2021 population but accounted for twenty-one percent of stops. Hispanics also shouldered a burden, although of substantially lesser magnitude (36 pct. of pop. v. 42 pct. of stops). On the other hand, White persons carried an advantage (35 pct. of pop. v. 31 percent of stops). Force, including lethal force, was also far more likely to be used against Black persons and substantially more likely to be used against Hispanic persons than against Whites.

     On first read, RIPA’s 222-page piece seems a thorough work. But as our readers know, we’re concerned about the influence of economic conditions on crime. As to these, RIPA’s silent. While its report insists that it did “closely analyze and isolate calls for service, stops, and other contacts to identify disparities while controlling for factors like neighborhood crime and poverty levels” (p. 216), RIPA kept mum about crime rates or economic conditions. So their impact (if any) on agency and officer decisions was ignored.

     From the start, critics have used RIPA data to accuse California cops of discriminating against members of minority groups. Our 2019 two-parter (“Did the Times Scapegoat L.A.’s Finest?”) was prompted by a series of articles in the Los Angeles Times that used RIPA data to question why only 17.9 percent of LAPD’s vehicle stops were of Whites. We selected a sample of one-hundred stops and took it from there. Our present journey was inspired by a recent piece in the Associated Press about RIPA’s reveal of similar racial and ethnic disparities in 2021 stops:

    In more than 42% of the 3.1 million stops by those agencies in 2021, the individual was perceived to be Hispanic or Latino, according to the report. More than 30% were perceived to be white and 15% were believed to be Black. Statewide, however, 2021 Census estimates say Black or African American people made up only 6.5% of California’s population, while white people were about 35%. Hispanic or Latino people made up roughly 40% of the state’s population that year.

     Well, 2022 RIPA stop data is in. We again focused on LAPD. (Click here for data on when and where stops took place, and here for details about suspects, officer actions, and outcomes.) Once again, the numbers create concern. According to Census ACS 2021 estimates, L.A.’s population is 28.1 percent White, 7.8 percent Black and 48.1 percent Hispanic. Yet only 17.1 percent of the 330,075 stops in 2022  were of White persons. Black persons were stopped at a rate about three times their share of the population, while Hispanics suffered a lesser disadvantage.

     What’s more, Black persons were stopped at higher rates throughout Los Angeles. This graphic, which we generated using RIPA data, arranges police Divisions by poverty, from prosperous Division 14, “Pacific”, where only 7.2 percent of residents are poor, to the impoverished Division 13, “Newton”, where 36.3 percent are poor:

(Division pop. figures are posted on each Division’s homepage. Racial and ethnic distributions are from the LAPD I.G.’s 2019 report. Division poverty was estimated by overlaying city ZIP codes onto the LAPD Division map and averaging Census poverty scores across  ZIP’s. Division Part I crime rates, mentioned below, are from the L.A. City hub.)

     RIPA mentions that Black persons were often stopped outside their area of likely residence. For example, White persons comprise 51 percent of the residents of prosperous Pacific Division but figured in only 41 percent of stops. Meanwhile Black persons, who only form eight percent of that Division’s population, accounted for twenty-two percent of stops. Indeed, White persons seemed to enjoy a modest advantage throughout. As poverty scores increase, their proportion of the population, and of stops, plunges. (One exception, Div. 1, “Central”, which covers L.A.’s downtown, has a small resident population but  experiences a large influx during the daytime.)

    RIPA doesn’t collect data about crimes or arrests. For that we turned to the city’s public safety portal. On the left is a graphic that depicts the racial and ethnic distribution of LAPD arrests for aggravated assault and homicide in 2019 (the most recent year available), when 1,447 persons were arrested for homicide and 16,839 for aggravated assault. The disparities are obvious.

     Our next graphic arranges things as we did for stops:

Black persons seem substantially over-represented as alleged perpetrators of violent crimes, and particularly in the poorer districts. But there’s lots of numbers. So we turned to the “r” (correlation) statistic. (It ranges from zero to one. Zero means no relationship between variables; one reflects a perfect lock-step association. Positive r’s mean that variables move up and down together; a negative [-] r indicates that they travel in opposite directions.)

     Consider the relationship between Pct. White and Poverty. That strong negative r (-.76) means that as the proportion of White residents in a Division increases, percent poor consistently declines. In contrast, Pct. Black’s r with Poverty, a relatively strong [+] .51, indicates that Black residents and poverty increase and decrease pretty much in unison. There’s a similar relationship, but of lesser strength, between Pct. Hispanic and Poverty. And note that strong “positive” relationship between Poverty and Stop rates. Its r, a robust [+] .63, would yield highly visible, real-world consequences at poverty’s higher levels, say, from Div. 12 (“77th. Street”) on.

     As one might expect, Part I crimes and Homicide/Agg. Assault rates are in near-perfect sync. Ditto, the relationship of each with stop rates. Maybe LAPD’s focus really was on high-crime areas. But put stops aside. What’s most troubling is that as the proportion of Black residents increases, a Division’s inhabitants become considerably more likely to fall victim to violent crime. Indeed, the (+) .41 between Pct. Black and H/Agg. is a virtual opposite to the -.43 between Pct. White and H/Agg. That’s common throughout the U.S. Grab a look at the right graphic, which displays CDC’s 2020 national homicide victimization rates.

     Police Issues has always rejected the notion that race and ethnicity “cause” crime and violence. Instead, we’ve consistently laid the blame on poor economic conditions. And even in supposedly prosperous Los Angeles, material wealth is sharply distributed according to skin color. Just consider the challenges of living in an economically-challenged neighborhood: poor education, lousy child care, a lack of marketable skills, substandard housing, and an absence of health care and other critical supports. (For a “primer” check out “Fix Those Neighborhoods”. It’s part of our “Neighborhoods” special section, which offers a wealth of posts on point.)

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     Let’s bring it together. Set aside ideologically-infused narratives. Or even our well-intentioned try at objectivity. Share these two graphics with your friends. They really do say it all:

p.s.  As we were putting the finishing touches on this piece, Memphis happened. An indisputable abuse by some clearly out-of-control cops, and a man died. We’ve got an approach that might prove of value. Stay tuned!

UPDATES (scroll)

2/13/23  Do LAPD and Sheriff’s helicopters purposely fly lower over Black communities? That’s the claim in a lawsuit filed against L.A. County by the “Stop LAPD Spying Coalition” and UCLA’s “Carceral Ecologies Lab,” which researches the “prison industrial complex.” According to its director, an assistant professor, “the higher the proportion of Black population, the lower the altitude of the helicopter.” Their noise, according to the complainants, creates a “threatening atmosphere” and interferes with sleep.

2/10/23  Prospects seem excellent that many past criminal cases referred by members of Memphis PD’s “Scorpion” unit, which was disbanded after the killing of Tyre Nichols, will be dismissed. Shelby County’s D.A. has promised to review prosecutions that hinged on the testimony of officers now thought to be dishonest or facing prosecution. Hundreds of cases in which they participated are at risk, and defense lawyers are busily gearing up.

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Memo to Joe Biden: Focus on Neighborhood Safety (The Crime Report, Dec. 7, 2020)


Neighborhoods special topic

Did the Times Scapegoat L.A.’s Finest?  (I)  (II)     Fix Those Neighborhoods!     Black on Black

White on Black     Good Guy/Bad Guy/Black Guy  (I)  (II)