The swift actions taken against five former Memphis police officers that left them fired and behind bars have raised questions from critics on the handling of the investigation of Tyre Nichols’ death.
The officers accused of severely beating Nichols are all Black, and while their actions are universally condemned, critics of law enforcement are expressing how they wish white officers engaged in misconduct received penalties just as quickly.
“It took 2 weeks for 5 Black Memphis police officers to be fired and charged in the murder of #TyreNichols. If only white officers that consistently brutalize, abuse, and murder Black people were held accountable in like manner,” Bishop Talbert Swan said in a tweet.
Memphis, Tennessee, has a population of around 628,000, according to Census data. The city’s Black population is 64.4 percent.
Officials from the Memphis Police Department told WHBQ in 2021 the “department reflects the demographics of the community,” and 56 percent of its officers were Black.
However, filmmaker Bree Newsome argued that “diversifying the police force doesn’t end racism because racism is inherent to the organization of the institution & its daily operation. Racism is what policing is.”
“I need so many people to understand this regarding Tyre Nichols,” wrote sports analyst Jemele Hill. “Several of the police officers who murdered Freddie Gray were Black. The entire system of policing is based on white supremacist violence. We see people under the boot of oppression carry its water all the time.”
Former officers Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith were all fired on Jan. 20. They were later charged with one count of second-degree murder, one count of aggravated assault, two counts of aggravated kidnapping, two counts of official misconduct and one count of official oppression.
“Tyre Nichols cops charged with murder, who knew the system could move so fast? Guess it just takes some motivation. For comparison, check out the Ronald Greene timeline of events,” media personality Tim Black said on Twitter.
Ronald Greene, 49, like Nichols, was pulled over by police for a traffic stop in 2019. In Greene’s case, he sped away from the traffic stop, leading to a high-speed chase. Once police caught up to him, he was arrested, but police claimed he crashed his car. However, body-camera footage revealed he was beaten to death by the officers involved. In December, five state troopers were indicted for Greene’s death more than three years after he died.
The Memphis officers each could receive 15 to 60 years in prison if they are convicted of second-degree murder in Tennessee. The Commercial Appeal reports the officers’ sentences could be longer “given the added charges.”
During a Jan. 27 CNN interview with Don Lemon, Memphis police chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis was asked about the racial component in Nichols’ case.
“It’s five Black officers, a Black police chief, in a Black community what do you make of the race of the officers and what that says to the community and the country?” Lemon asked.
Davis replied, “it takes off the table issues and problems in law enforcement are about race and it is not.”
“It’s about human dignity, integrity, accountability, and the duty to protect our community. This video will show you it doesn’t matter who’s wearing the uniform,” Davis added.
Davis’ response to the racial component surrounding Nichols’ death also drew criticism.
“That was the easier answer to give,” Peggy Caspers commented on Twitter. “The more nuanced answer should have been racism is at the core of policing in America, which wouldn’t exclude Black cops from participating in that behavior. Like their white counterparts, they have been indoctrinated,” she continued.
Other social media users were blunter, including Jude Saunders.
“My husband said, ‘if that was white officers, they’d still be on paid administrative leave,’” Saunders said.
“She is trifling for this irresponsible narrative. . Racism is most definitely still on the table, it just does not play a role in THIS particular case. Police power & racism is completely out of control,” wrote Facebook user Tay Michelle in response to the chief’s interview.
Davis described the video of Nichols’ violent arrest as “alarming” during a CNN interview.
“I don’t think I’ve witnessed anything that bad in my entire career,” Davis added.
The Memphis police chief also revealed additional details about what precipitated the traffic stop. Davis said after reviewing all available footage of Nichols’ traffic stop, she could not find any evidence that warranted him being pulled over for alleged reckless driving.
In addition to the five Memphis officers, two EMTs who were part of Nichols’ “initial patient care” have been placed on paid leave pending the outcome of an internal investigation.
Until the video is released, the details of exactly what happened are still sparse.
Police said in an initial tweet Nichols was pulled over for reckless driving on Jan. 7. The officers approached his vehicle and a “confrontation” occurred. Nichols managed to get away on foot before the officers caught up to him, leading to a second “confrontation” and eventual arrest. After an apprehension, Nichols complained of experiencing “shortness of breath.” An ambulance transported Nichols to the hospital in critical condition; he died in the hospital three days later.
As the nation awaits the video release Friday, speculation mounts on the police handling of the case and how hard and fast justice is handed down on the accused Black officers.
The Memphis officers’ arrest timeline is in sync with other high-profile deaths at the hands of police. It took two days for the officer that killed Atatiana Jefferson to be arrested. officers charged in Freddie Gray’s death were in custody two weeks after his death. Derek Chauvin, who was found guilty of the murder of George Floyd, was arrested four days after the incident, according to BuzzFeed.
“This is nothing new. Too many Black officers have always been harder on Black citizens just to prove that they have blue running through their veins,” Twitter user Stan E. Washington said.