Even after 45 years, I find it an ambitious and daunting task to write about policing. Because the issue at hand is not as easy and simple as it looks. It is not possible to do it out of context, meaning my own socialisation into a police organisation. My time inside policing and the larger unfolding of my work influenced my thinking, and my emotions.
Right now, my emotions go over board. I will say why, but before that I will say that I struggle with an enormous sadness, and I cope with anger and resentment. Anger and resentment are poison for me. I am what one could name a police officer who has seen more than a normal share of awfulness. In a situation in which I am operationally involved, I manage to stay calm. I describe this state of mind “going tactical”. But this is only a means to do what is expected from me, unbiased, professional, and allowing me to maintain safety and security for all involved. Especially victims.
But nothing in 45 years has led to that I get less upset, less sad, less tempted to give in into anger, than when I see blatant examples of violence and abuse by public officials, in their most atrocious forms.
So, what happened?
January 7, 2023, Tyre Nichols was stopped by police officers in Memphis, in the United States of America. Three days later, he died. He succumbed to wounds inflicted on him by police officers in a way which is even unimaginable when taking into account the circumstances of the deaths of Rodney King in Los Angeles, Michael Brown in Ferguson, and George Floyd in Minneapolis, and others, so many others.
It doesn’t matter that Tyre Nichols was a person of color. Neither it does that the police officers were all persons of color, too. It matters that they were police officers, public officials entrusted with the power to exert reasonable force, only if necessary, and only using appropriate levels of force. What makes this case standing out is that a combination of street cams and body cams worn by the officers themselves are documenting 26 minutes until medical assistance engaged, with Tyre Nichols brutally and for no reason at all being beaten to death, literally. Memphis police fired the officers involved, and others, including rescue services, were fired for gross negligence. The officers involved face murder charges.
You can see select reporting here, on NBC News, and here, on BBC News. You can see ONE FULL HOUR of bodycam and streetcam footage about these 26 minutes, for example, here, on NBC News.
I watched it. It broke my heart.
Today, January 31, 2023, the New York Times is releasing a story in the format of an “Opinion Video”. It is a video piece of the NYT, and it is titled “Authorities Used a Taser on Him 7 Times in 15 Minutes. Then He Died. Justice Never Came.“
The NYT video starts with: “It’s one thing to imagine what happened. It’s another thing to see what happened. And it’s another thing to hear what happened.”
So, I watched it, too. I forced myself to the very end. It broke my heart, again. A friend of mine, passionate about the fight against violence by enforcement officers like I, refused to watch it to the end. It sickened her too much. Yet, if you can stomach it, I encourage you to watch the opinion video. It is outstanding in it’s making, and I won’t go into an account of it here.
It is the story of the death of Jerod Draper. Jerod was arrested in 2018, in southern Indiana. It does not matter that Jerod was a white male. The traffic stop, including his attempts to flee, and the subsequent arrest by the police, from what I can see in the video, and what is circumstantial in the reporting, seems to have been conducted correctly. Jerod, as it turned out, was intoxicated with methamphetamines. Turned out, he had OD’d, meaning, he took an overdose. Later examination would confirm that the was dying a slow overdose death for hours, and it is reasonable to believe that proper medical treatment would have saved his life.
The video includes the full documentation by a surveillance camera in the jail cell into which he was incarcerated. For reasons of his not injuring himself, he was put into a specific long-coated straight jacket, and he was tied to a specific chair for the maximum time permitted. He was violent to himself in a jail cell with no moving or destroyable parts. The massive intoxication made him banging his head against the cell walls, and much more.
I was beyond disbelief when seeing a group of several correction officers, some of which obviously also held roles of paramedic tasks, acting. Including tasering Jerod seven times in fifteen minutes, whilst his foot was stomped upon, and he was forced down by other staff. One expert consulted in this video puts it correctly: Jerod was tortured. He did, it would appear, not die from torture, or as a direct consequence of this atrocious behavior. He died because his methamphetamine overdose killed him, and he died because of absent medical emergency treatment.
Instead, he was tortured by staff that simply had one objective: Making sure he could not move, and would not be able to harm himself. I am struggling to apprehend thought processes which, in order to make him stopping to hurt himself, lead to pushing Jerod down, and applying a 50.000 Volt taser not in self-defense, but literally like a surgical instrument, on his limbs and his body. Seven.Times.In.Fifteen.Minutes.
I know I am talking about extreme cases. But it does not invalidate the argument which I am going to unfold.
In the BBC article on Tyre Nichols’s murder, Alexis Hoag-Fordjour, a professor at Brooklyn Law School and co-director of the Center for Criminal Justice is interviewed. She is quoted with the following: “Policing in this country is focused on control, subordination and violence – regardless of the race of the officer,” she said. “Society views black people as inherently dangerous and criminal… even if you have black people in the position of law enforcement, that doesn’t mean that proposition goes away.”
Now, I know I will write, am writing, “essays on policing”. No surprise in that police violence and abuse of power will feature in these essays. By far not from a U.S. perspective, my view on this is global. But it includes the sheer endless U.S. debate. If one adds the second article, where corrections officers are involved, the underlying rationale goes beyond policing.
Meaning, coming back to the title which I chose: I do see societies and cultures in which public officials are driven by an understanding of “enforcement” which, taken to its extreme, will not allow anything else than cowering down and hoping that gestures of subduing myself will hopefully lessen the chance of receiving more than a very unpleasant attitude of officers allowing no dissent. Go through U.S. immigration on airports, get into contact with cops, or face a private security officer anywhere in the United States.
It is this attitude, being part of what I call the “DNA” of policing, which increases the likelihood of instances of getting roughed up, or worse. Taken to its extreme, this is the attitude leading to the above horrible murder of Tyre Nichols, and actions of torture (yes, I agree with the expert in the video), which obviously raise severe questions of accountability in the case of Jerod Draper.
As long as we name it “law enforcement”, as long as I see police cars with light signals like “Stop – It’s The Law” (because, it doesn’t matter whether it is the law, it matters that I am able to explain why I am applying the law, and that I act proportionally). as long as we have this attitude in policing by police officers and police organisations (I personally refuse to talk about a “Police Force”), as long as enforcement is squarely at the heart of an understanding of policing, I feel we will continue to see no progress on police reform.
Police Reform is not starting with reforming the Police. It is starting with reforming the understanding of policing.