Jan 30, 2023

The death of Tyre Nichols.

Memphis Chief of Police "CJ" Davis delivers comments on Tyre Nichols' death. Image: Yahoo News
Memphis Chief of Police "CJ" Davis delivers comments on Tyre Nichols' death. Image: Yahoo News 

Warning: Today's edition contains descriptions of violence, explicit language, and links to graphic videos.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minutes.

🚓
Tyre Nichols. Today, we're covering the death of Tyre Nichols, and the footage that was released on Friday. Plus, an under the radar story on the border and some numbers about police killings.

Friday interview.

On Friday, I interviewed two former attorneys general who are advocating to pass a Constitutional amendment that locks the number of Supreme Court justices in at nine. The issue, like all Friday editions, was for Tangle members only. You can get a transcription of the interview and become a member by going here.


Quick hits.

  1. The Republican National Committee re-elected Ronna McDaniel to her fourth term as chairwoman of the Republican party. (The election)
  2. Seven Palestinian gunmen and two civilians were killed during a raid by the Israeli military in the West Bank. Israel says it was conducting an antiterrorism operation. Palestinian authorities have suspended security coordination. (The violence)
  3. Rep. Adam Schiff said he will run for Senate in California in the 2024 race, joining Reps. Katie Porter and Barbara Lee, who are also running. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who is 89, still hasn't announced her plans to retire from the seat. (The race)
  4. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy says he will meet with President Joe Biden to discuss the debt ceiling on Wednesday. (The meeting)
  5. Former President Trump campaigned in New Hampshire and South Carolina this weekend, officially kicking off his 2024 presidential campaign. (The campaign)

Today's topic.

Warning: Today's edition of Tangle includes descriptions of violence, explicit language, and links to graphic videos of a beating.

Tyre Nichols’ death. On January 7, the 29-year-old was pulled over on allegations of reckless driving. The Memphis Police Department released four edited videos capturing the encounter, but details of the initial traffic stop remain unclear. At the very start of the only video of the initial stop released by the Memphis Police Department, officers are already approaching Nichols’ car shouting with guns drawn as they drag him out of his car.

Several officers are threatening to shoot or hurt Nichols as they approach the car, with one officer screaming "You are going to get your ass blown the fuck up!" One officer opens his door and pulls him to the ground. Nichols initially remains calm, saying to the officers, "damn, I didn't do anything," as they tell him to get on the ground. He complies, lying on his side, as he continues to tell the cops "I am on the ground, okay?" Nichols again says to the officers he "didn't do anything," and says that he is "just trying to go home," as one officer commands another to "tase him" twice.

Laying on his side, surrounded by officers, the police struggle to get both of his hands behind his back as they hold down parts of his body and repeatedly threaten to tase and pepper spray him. "I'm going to knock your ass the fuck out," one officer says, and Nichols again responds, "you are really doing a lot right now."

The officers tell him to get on his stomach, and Nichols, lying on his side with one arm behind his back, says, "I am, please!" An officer says "spray him" and one of the cops pepper sprays Nichols. The spray hits Nichols and at least one other officer, which sets off a commotion that obstructs the body camera for about two seconds, until Nichols can be seen struggling to his feet as another officer deploys his taser, at which point Nichols wriggles from the officers' grasp, removes his sweatshirt and flees on foot.

Approximately eight minutes later, body camera footage and a security camera from a light pole on the street capture officers as they encounter Nichols in a suburban neighborhood, about 100 yards from his home. The officers surround Nichols and begin kicking, punching, and beating him with a baton. Officers continue to strike him in the head, stomach and back while he is on the ground. At one point, the officers pick him up and hold him on his feet, with his hands restrained, to allow the other officers to continue beating him.

In the footage of the second encounter, Nichols does not strike any officers. For much of the video, his hands are restrained behind him. He repeatedly pleads with the officers to stop, even screaming for his mother at several points.

Nichols was unarmed, and police have yet to share dash camera footage or traffic footage to substantiate the allegations of reckless driving. There were no reported weapons, drugs or contraband found in his vehicle. Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis said authorities don't have video of the initial traffic stop because the first officer on the scene was driving a brand new, unmarked car that was not equipped with dashboard cameras. Davis says she doesn’t yet know why the officer was in an unmarked car, often used for surveillance, or how the initial encounter unfolded. She said the officers allege Nichols was driving on the wrong side of the road but "we have not been able to prove that."

At the end of the beating, the officers leave Nichols propped up against the side of a patrol car. For nearly 20 minutes, nobody on scene administers any first aid. Medics arrive, but mill around with the officers for several minutes before tending to Nichols. About 30 minutes after the beating began, an ambulance arrives, and he is then taken to a hospital. Three days later, Nichols died from extensive internal bleeding due to injuries consistent with a severe beating.

According to his family and their attorney, Nichols had been working the second shift at a nearby FedEx facility for about nine months. He had a 4-year-old son, was an avid photographer and skateboarder, and was reportedly returning from a nearby park when he was pulled over by police.

The five officers in the video of the second encounter were Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith. They were part of a special unit called SCORPION — Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods — that was formed to address some of the most serious crimes in Memphis, like homicides, robberies and assaults. All five officers are Black, and each one has been fired from the MPD and charged with second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression. A sixth officer, whose body camera footage was released by Memphis Police Department, has yet to be officially identified. He appeared to be a white officer who deployed his taser against Nichols.

Two fire department employees who arrived to administer emergency medical services have also been put on leave. The Memphis Police Department says it is permanently disbanding the SCORPION unit.

The Memphis Police Department released the videos here (warning: graphic content).

Today, we'll be taking a look at some reactions to the encounter, the video, and the protests, and then my take.


What the left is saying.

  • The left condemns the beating, and many argue it is another example of a rotten police culture that promotes excessive use of force.
  • Some say America, scared of rising crime, has moved on from police reform.
  • Others say popular reforms implemented so far clearly aren't working, and insist we need to reimagine the entire policing system.

In The New York Times, Charles Blow condemned "America's shame" of abandoning broader police reforms.

"After the killing of George Floyd in 2020 and the historic summer of protest that followed, police killings of American citizens didn’t decrease; they increased," Blow said. "What fell away were the evanescent allies, poll-chasing politicians and cooped-up Covid kids who had used the protests as an opportunity to congregate. Even Black people’s support for the Black Lives Matter movement eventually began to fall. And as Americans shifted to other priorities like politics and the economy, the broader public became desensitized to police killings, or it callously started to see the police killings as unfortunate but ultimately acceptable byproducts of much-needed increased policing at a time of rising crime. Too many liberal politicians showed us that their commitment to legislation, and even language, to protect Black lives from police violence was polling dependent, not rooted in moral rectitude or core values but governed by their ideas’ public appeal.

"When the winds shifted, these politicians spun like a weather vane," he wrote. "They ran scared of being labeled woke or supporting a 'defund the police' ideology. Rather than rebrand a laudable effort to be smarter about how municipal funds are allocated with a more acceptable slogan, they did the lazy, politically expedient thing: They raced to neutralize the idea by proclaiming their direct opposition to it, not defunding the police but increasing funding to the police… Police unions also learned a lesson: that they could survive the most intense and coordinated denunciation of their practices they had ever faced and still dodge federal legislation to address the violence that happens on their watch."

Former Rep. Val Demings (D-FL), who was police chief in Orlando for four years, said police must reform themselves.

"Unfortunately, it’s unlikely any serious reforms will come from Congress. In 2020, House Democrats passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a bill that was not perfect but at least made a real start," Demings wrote. "Senate Republicans blocked it, however, hiding behind blatant lies about defunding the police and claiming the legislation went after good officers just doing their jobs. (In fact, House Democrats also passed legislation to increase, not decrease, police funding — including one of my bills.) President Biden signed an executive order for federal law enforcement that put into place some of those ideas, but we still need reforms for local departments.

"Police departments should take the lead to revise and reform use-of-force policies, hiring and training standards, and oversight and accountability," she wrote. "Techniques such as chokeholds need to be banned, and practices such as no-knock warrants should be tightly controlled. Officers on special units need to be highly seasoned, fully accountable and regularly rotated. Transparency and accountability should be seen for what they are: tools to allow executives to strengthen departments. There is currently no national database of police misconduct, meaning that when officers are fired for cause, they could be hired by another department elsewhere. Law enforcement executives have a duty to ensure that misconduct is never tolerated."

In The New Yorker, Zak Cheney-Rice wrote about the limited nature of popular police reforms and the necessity of tearing down the current policing model.

"The crisis in Memphis is the latest lesson in how limited the most popular reforms are, including those that might have seemed like game-changers not so long ago. Body cameras may have given us visual evidence of Nichols’s deathly beating, but were no deterrent," Cheney-Rice said. "Severely curtailing the power of cops and dismantling America’s policing infrastructure have been dismissed as political poison and ruinous to public safety. But the alternative is a system where inevitable atrocities arise instead, forcing grieving moms and rattled officials to beg people not to burn down their cities. The fact that all five cops who killed Nichols are Black is further evidence that we’re not dealing with a problem of individual prejudice and unaccountability, but something more fundamental to the job of policing.

"In reality, Black Memphians are still trapped in a web of segregation, suspicion, and the second-highest poverty rate of any city in America with more than 500,000 residents, disadvantages that are overseen and patrolled most directly by the police. Tyre Nichols was not killed by a 'bad apple' or a bigoted white interloper with a badge, but by a group of five cops united by a common sense of purpose and a legal mandate to determine who lives or dies," he wrote. "Nichols’s death may lead to new calls for police reform, but reform can only go so far if the police are operating as intended."


What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right also condemn the beatings, and insist that police are being held responsible.
  • Some note the race of the officers, and argue that this undermines a popular liberal narrative of the role race plays in these encounters.
  • Others say the officers should be punished, but warn about another wave of calls to defund the police.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said "the police who beat the young man are being held accountable."

"Americans owe a debt of gratitude to the family of Tyre Nichols, the 29-year-old father who was beaten during an arrest by Memphis police and died three days later. The Nichols family called for protesters to avoid violence as they demanded justice in the case, and for the most part that is what happened over the weekend after the police video of the arrest was released Friday evening," the board said. "The bodycam video is infuriating and will be part of the evidence against the five officers charged with second-degree murder, among other offenses. Nichols appeared to be defenseless as he was repeatedly kicked and hit. The officers were dismissed from the force, and the district attorney brought the charges before the video was publicly released. Whatever justice is meted out won’t make up for the loss of an apparently innocent young man’s life, but the cops are being held accountable.

"The case will bring back the issue of police training and how extensive such abuse is. The officers were part of a special unit called Scorpion formed in 2021 to reduce violence in high-crime areas of a city notorious for the lack of public safety. The police disbanded the Scorpion unit this weekend, which is no doubt a response to public anger, but it won’t serve the city if this leads to a new burst of crime," the board wrote. "The fact that there is inadequate training and poor recruitment for police in many parts of the country is undeniable. The answer must come primarily from local and state officials as policing is rightly a local function. The federal government can help with funding and the distribution of best practices, but not with politically motivated mandates."

In National Review, Rich Lowry said if the cops were white, "everything would have been different."

"Cities around the country would experience serious violence and people would get hurt and perhaps killed; major institutions around the country would find ways to signal their assent to the proposition that America is fundamentally racist; DEI efforts would get another boost in funding and mainstream appeal; the players in the NFL title games would insist on making some statement before playing on Sunday; and on and on," he wrote. "Although there are attempts to save the police-racism narrative in Memphis, it simply doesn’t have the same resonance in a case involving cops, all of whom are black, mistreating a black arrestee. Indeed, Memphis should be yet another blow to the simplistic, dishonest idea that it is racial animus that accounts for white police misconduct.

"If you, for good reason, are unwilling to believe that the black cops in this case are self-loathing black men who hate young black men and wish to harm them for racial reasons, then their behavior becomes a function of poor training and supervision, abysmal decision-making, anger in the moment, enjoyment of their feeling of power, free-floating cruelty, or some combination of these things, or all of them," Lowry said. "These are obviously attributes that influence the conduct of white cops, too — they are all cops and, more important, all human beings, who are prone to error of all kinds... The Left has elevated race above all the other factors that might play into a police encounter gone horribly wrong. The racial interpretation allows the Left to make a broader critique of American society and force wide-ranging political and social changes."

The New York Post editorial board condemned the beatings, but warned against generalizing all cops.

"Anyone who watched the video of Memphis cops fatally beating 29-year-old Tyre Nichols had to be horrified at the senseless brutality of officers sworn to uphold the law," they wrote. "Decent folks should be outraged, the cops held accountable. Yet it would only compound the horror to smear all police officers for the sins of these few. Or to enflame the outrage by citing this as an example of 'systemic racism' — and a justification for violence, as in 2020 after George Floyd’s death. Key questions remain: Why was Nichols really pulled over? What prompted the cops’ virulent hostility? Yet so far there’s no evidence whatsoever that the cops targeted Nichols because he was black.

"Where’s the logic in claiming racism, after all, considering the officers who delivered the blows — punches, kicks, whacks with a baton — were all black themselves? These cops were out of control, abusing their power, incompetent, poorly trained or all of the above. But racist?" they asked. "This tragedy will goose the anti-cop/Defund the Police movement, leading to less policing and more crime, which takes the greatest toll on minorities: A Heritage study last year found blacks were 54% of murder victims nationwide yet just 13% of the population. George Floyd proved it: Following the riots, cities, including New York, cut police resources — and violent crime soared. Why repeat that mistake?"


My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. You can reply to this email and write in. If you're a subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

  • I would not suggest watching the video, as it is truly disturbing.
  • I've long been critical of how police function in the U.S., and this video did not help.
  • We need to fundamentally overhaul the way police are trained.

We've covered enough of these stories that I want to try to avoid repeating myself today. If you're relatively new, you can know this: I'm very critical of our current policing system. I don't think "defunding" or "fewer" cops is the right answer, but I do think our police are poorly trained, excessively violent, and have (for a long time) not been held accountable. Race has obviously played a big role in many departments’ historic mistreatment of citizens, and despite knowing and loving some police officers as friends or family, I'm inherently wary of most police I encounter.

And this video certainly didn't help.

If you're interested in "fact-checking" our reporting or descriptions of the event, there are links to watch the videos up top, but otherwise I'd recommend against it. The entire episode is upsetting, haunting, and disturbing. I'm not sure how much value there is in seeing the video. Nichols maintains an unbelievable level of calm early on as officers threaten to break his arm, blow his head off, and tase him. We still have no idea what provoked such a violent and aggressive posture, and Memphis Police aren't explaining, which often means it would look worse for the cops than whatever we're imagining.

Even the known allegation against Nichols we do have — reckless driving, which has yet to be substantiated — isn't remotely close to a procedural justification for their response, which looked more akin to how cops should act in a hostage situation or if a gang of armed criminals were firing on them.

Arguments about the role of institutional racism or the absence of it are all well and good to have. I think that debate in the public discourse is necessary, and I'm not going to sit here and tell you these five Black cops were or weren't acting on some internalized racial bias or negative attitudes towards other Black folks. I simply don’t know.

I'm convinced the much deeper issue here is, once again, the way we think of policing itself — and how we train our officers to engage citizens in their job. When you arm a "special" group of young men to the teeth, call them the SCORPION task force, hand them unmarked cars without dashboard cameras and give them free reign to go "police" a violent and dangerous city as they see fit, guess what? They're going to sometimes act like a violent gang, because that's the mentality you've put them in.

Twice in my life I've seen someone get jumped by a group of people trying to seriously harm them, and this video is worse than either of those memories. The beating of Nichols was not an arrest. They weren't trying to restrain or apprehend him, or deliver justice. They were administering payback because he "didn't comply," which of course he actually did — at least as well as you can expect anyone to in his situation. He got out of the car, he was put on the ground, he stayed calm, he told the officers to relax, and they responded by telling him they were going to blow his head off, trying to break his arm, pepper spraying him (and each other), tasing him, and then beating him to death, all on camera.

Part of our broken policing is this reality: It's really, really, hard — maybe impossible — to relax your body and comply exactly as you are instructed when you encounter an overly aggressive police officer who is twisting your arm, or five people who are pointing guns at you and threatening to blow your brains out. This obvious point is not discussed nearly enough when analyzing these encounters.

Why does this happen so often in our country? There are all sorts of popular responses and plenty of factors at play. But if you want my answer, put our abysmal police training at the top of the list. When I interviewed former cop Randy Shrewsberry about how to fix policing, he painstakingly convinced me that nothing mattered more than the way in which officers are trained, a process that currently takes a mere six to eight months and teaches them to view everyone they encounter only as a potential threat.

According to Shrewsberry's analysis, only three countries require less police training than the United States: Iraq, Afghanistan, and Papua New Guinea. In Australia and New Zealand, cops are trained for four years. In Germany, three. Here? Less than a year. Shrewsberry tells a memorable story of being on a date with a woman who was a hair stylist and realizing her training to keep her cosmetology license was more vigorous than his to stay on the force.

I'm not here to tell you cops are all bad, corrupt, criminal, incompetent, violent or looking for trouble. I don't believe that. I've encountered a lot of cops who were helpful, calm, kind and good at their jobs. I also understand the dangers of policing are real and complex (it is the 22nd most dangerous job in America, by one estimate). But, to steal a line from Shrewsberry, cops "are three to five times more likely to kill themselves than to be killed by someone else, though most get no training on self-care, identification of PTSD or depression and if they do it's generally no more than a day." Again: We ask them to do a difficult job well and we do a very bad job at preparing them for that job.

Throwing these officers out as “bad apples” and moving on simply isn’t sufficient, and cannot continue to be the answer. As I’ve said before, federal legislation isn’t going to do much good, nor is cutting funding for departments with a bad track record. Reimagining training, recruiting more qualified officers to the job, and taking the load off police (who regularly have to act as couples therapists, animal control, and parking authority in the same day they’re expected to chase down violent criminals) all seem necessary to me.

None of this is any consolation or comfort for Nichols' family. Nobody deserves to die, especially not at the hands of police, and doubly so when they are — by all accounts — a kind, law-abiding father who handled himself with far more composure than any of the police he ran into. Of course, more details about the initial encounter may emerge to complicate the narrative we have now, but I sincerely doubt they will change the fundamentals of an incompetent, violent group of officers acting in a criminal fashion.

So, yes: We can hope they are punished accordingly, but we should continue to call for changes that have a far more focused and lasting impact.


Your questions, unanswered.

We're skipping today's reader question to give our main story some extra space. If you want to ask a question, reply to this email or fill out this form.


Under the radar.

An online system introduced by the Biden administration to help process asylum claims is being quickly overwhelmed by applicants on a daily basis. CBPOne is a mobile app that was launched on January 12, but so far many applicants find themselves unable to log in, staring at error messages, and incapable of scheduling an appointment. Others have complained that applications only exist in Spanish or English, two languages many potential applicants don't speak. The Biden administration has pitched CBPOne as a safe, orderly alternative to coming into the U.S. illegally, and has acknowledged some technical problems. The Associated Press has the story.


Numbers.

  • 1,096. The number of people shot and killed by police in 2022, according to The Washington Post tracker.
  • 1,048. The number of people shot and killed by police in 2021, according to The Washington Post tracker.
  • 8,166. The number of fatal police shootings since 2015, according to The Washington Post tracker.
  • 3,622. The number of people killed by police since 2015 who were white, according to The Washington Post tracker.
  • 1,905. The number of people killed by police since 2015 who were Black, according to The Washington Post tracker.
  • 5.9. The number of Black people, per million, who are shot and killed by police per year.
  • 2.3. The number of white people, per million, who are shot and killed by police per year.

Have a nice day.

A team of New Jersey police officers went "above and beyond" to rescue a man who was stranded in the woods and nearly died of hypothermia. Tom McHugh had been reported missing by his daughter 24 hours after she had seen him leave for a ride in the rural Sussex County mountains in his side-by-side offroad vehicle. Troopers later found his crashed side-by-side, and New Jersey State Trooper James Thonus, an ex-Marine, helped track McHugh's bootprints a mile and a half until they discovered him unconscious and suffering from hypothermia. Thonus said he remembered his Marine training on how to warm up a body without fire or blankets.

“That’s what they teach us to do: life-saving skills in cold conditions,” Thonus said. “Strip down, get on top of him, give him sternum rubs, body heat to body heat, whatever you can do to get [him warm].” Officers rotated laying on McHugh to raise his body temperature before carrying him back to their vehicles and rushing him to the hospital. He's now making a full recovery. Good News Network has the story.


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