No easy answers with policing

Memphis, beleaguered by soaring homicide rates, drastically lowered recruiting standards for new officers. Their lack of experience was shocking to veterans.

Memphis Reacts To Release Of Police Body Cam Video Of Tyre Nichols’ Arrest Prior To His Death Days Later

Demonstrators protest the death of Tyre Nichols on January 28 in Memphis, Tennessee.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

From my perspective — speaking only for myself, and not as a member of my race, gender or ethnic origin — Washington Post columnist Karen Attiah had it exactly right about the national media’s ritual display of an “endless stream of videos of Black people, usually men, being brutalized by police.”

Attiah argued that actions like CNN’s obsessive, repetitious coverage of Tyre Nichols’ beating death by Memphis police amounts to political pornography, in essence “snuff films as ritual entertainment.” This is because “white liberals have run out of political ideas or the power to fundamentally transform policing.”

So it’s my fault — and Jake Tapper’s — then. Well, it always is, isn’t it?

That said, I couldn’t handle more than about 30 seconds of Nichols being brutalized by cops acting like soldiers of an invading army — because that’s what they are: representatives of the established order sent to subdue the endemic population.

Columnists bug


In-depth political coverage, sports analysis, entertainment reviews and cultural commentary.

The Associated Press reports that Memphis, beleaguered by soaring homicide rates, drastically lowered recruiting standards for new officers and assigned them to “specialized units like the now-disbanded SCORPION high-crime strike force involved in Nichols’ arrest. Their lack of experience was shocking to veterans, who said some young officers who transfer back to patrol don’t even know how to write a traffic ticket or respond to a domestic call.”

“They don’t know a felony from a misdemeanor,” one veteran officer told the AP. “They don’t even know right from wrong yet.”

Opinion Newsletter

Instead, they tended to be the worst kind of cop: drawn into police work out of a desire to carry handcuffs and a pistol and kick ass. Keeping such individuals off the force should be a police recruiter’s primary goal.

I’m reminded of George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” perhaps the most brilliant short essay in the English language. Serving as a British policeman in colonial Burma (Myanmar), Orwell perceived “that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the ‘natives,’ and so in every crisis he has got to do what the ‘natives’ expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.”

Just so the swaggering young cops of the SCORPION unit, turned loose with little or no effective leadership to bully the young Black men of Memphis into submission. Which appears to be what the Memphis citizenry of all races wanted of them.

The New York Times sent a team of reporters to interview young Black men who’d been roughed up by the team: “SCORPION encounters,” they reported, “typically began over something minor — a tinted window violation, a seatbelt infraction, a broken taillight or cracked windshield — and often resulted in officers finding illegal drugs, unregistered weapons, stolen cars and outstanding warrants.”

This, in turn, appears to be pretty much why widely predicted rioting never occurred either in Memphis or anywhere else. Also why advice from pundits about stopping armed police from enforcing traffic laws sounded so weak. Yes, the SCORPION traffic stops were pretextual. The Times aptly described them as “the vehicular equivalent of ‘stop and frisk.”’ Cops were looking for any excuse to pull young Black men — usually the only drivers out and about in low-income neighborhoods after 10 p.m. — and to search their cars for dope and guns.

They kept finding them, too.

Until the five officers charged with Tyre Nichols’ murder go to trial, we probably won’t learn why they pulled him over, or what, if anything, they suspected him of. Which is not to say they had good reason. We simply don’t know. It looks like they had the wrong man — a tragedy and an outrage.

Predictable, too.

I recently had a conversation with a Black friend who’d been caught in a crossfire between rival gangs in a Little Rock intersection where I’d never venture after dark — roughly 2 miles south of my home, and on a different planet. He jumped out of his car and lay face-down in the street until the shooting ended, and then drove off before police arrived, avoiding trouble.

It was the same corner where Little Rock’s then-Black police chief had traded shots with a pistol-packing woman on New Year’s Eve 2021.

Having friends on the force and friends in prison, my friend’s attitude toward events in Memphis could be described as weary resignation. While white people make most of the noise about the homicide rate in this city, it’s Black people who are virtually all of the victims.

Memphis is the same, only more so.

Only in America could we flood the nation with handguns and then profess shock and amazement at spiraling homicide rates.

So yeah, I’m out of ideas. You?

Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President.”

The Sun-Times welcomes letters to the editor and op-eds. See our guidelines.

The Latest
25th anniversary event presents ‘Star 80,’ ‘Stony Island’ and other under-the-radar movies, often hearing from the artists who made them.
Anderson talked smack, flipped bats and became the coolest thing about a Sox team seemingly headed for great things. Then it all went “poof.” In town with the Marlins, he discussed it on Thursday.
Another exposure location was reported at the Sam’s Club at 9400 S. Western Ave. in Evergreen Park, Cook County health officials said Thursday.
The Chicago Park District said April’s cold and wet weather has kept the buds of 190 cherry blossom trees at Jackson Park from fully opening.
Bedard entered the season finale Thursday with 61 points in 67 games, making him the most productive Hawks teenager since Patrick Kane in 2007-08, but he’s not entirely pleased with his performance.