Video footage was released today of the interaction between Memphis police officers and Tire Nichols, a 29-year-old black man who died just days after being beaten by police during a Jan. 7 traffic stop.
The five police officers involved in the incident, all of whom were black, have since been fired and charged, including second-degree murder. The death is one of many high-profile police killings, particularly the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, which has sparked public outrage about police violence and brutality in black communities.
Nichols’ death, however, shows that policy reforms in response to past police killings have not gone far enough, says UC Berkeley professor of African-American studies Nikki Jones, and that the use of targeted police units in black neighborhoods, seen as high-crime areas, escalates the possibility of extreme violence.
The Nichols case also rejects the notion that generations of violent systemic racism embedded in America’s criminal justice system can be changed by simply hiring more black police officers.
“The police department is one that has a deep history of racial policing. And you can’t escape that. You’re not exempt from that just because you’re a black officer,” said Jones, an award-winning criminologist who recently published an article in the City and Community Journal focusing on the impact of targeted policing units in black communities. “So, this case takes away these quick fixes that people think are real solutions.”
The Berkeley News spoke with Jones about the impact videos of police killings have had on her students and how police training and culture continue to help justify brutal forms of violence in black communities.
Berkeley News: The officers involved in this incident were charged with murder much more quickly than police have been in previous police killings. Why do you think this is the case?
Nikki Jones: I think it won’t happen until the summer of 2020 when George Floyd was murdered. And yet it’s also the case that these officers are all black, and we’ve seen other places where black officers have been held accountable in ways that white officers have not.
And it also makes us question what people think of as an easy solution to the problem. Right in the heart of the summer 2020 riots, people saw black officers as a response to police brutality. And I think what we’re seeing here, again, based on what people have said about the video, is that to become a police officer is to become an expert in deploying force, aggression, and violence. That’s what the police train you to do, and it provides the opportunity to use that violence in unwarranted and unrestrained ways.
So it’s a systemic problem that can’t just be solved with a quick fix.
In past incidents of police killing black people, we have often seen non-black officers as the perpetrators. But in this case the police were completely black. Should this case be viewed differently because of that? How can we understand the impact of systemic racism in America’s criminal justice system differently, or the same, when the officers are black?
I think that because they are black officers, it highlights and exposes some of the fundamental contradictions and flaws in what we think policing is as an institution.
Policing is an institution that trains officers to see us versus them, and black officers and female officers are just as susceptible to that as anyone else.
The police institution is one that has a deep history of racial control. You are not exempt from it just because you are a black officer.
This case takes away these quick fixes that people think are real solutions, that just having black officers can solve this deeper problem.
After all the supposed reforms police departments made after the killing of George Floyd and other Black victims, why is this still happening?
The unit involved in this killing was a special task force unit that used targeting practices. They were a task force specifically called the SCORPION Unit. So that it immediately reflects their relationship with society and its work. Scorpions bite and kill.
When you have these hotspot-targeted policing practices, and you give officers license, in some cases, to hunt crime or violence in those places, you legitimize a certain kind of logic that officers will have in doing their work—that people who live in these places the kind of people you need to treat more aggressively. The officers orient themselves towards these places and people with the expectation of danger and aggression.
And so why do we still have it now, after the killing of George Floyd? Well, we had this real moment where we had a rupture and an opportunity for transformation. And certainly, I think some changes have come from that. But we also saw that we had a large-scale reduction in response to the spikes in gun violence.
We are at a moment in history when the police have never been under more scrutiny. So how does this happen? It only happens if the police on the spot believe that this type of activity and behavior is acceptable.
You haven’t seen the video of Nichols being beaten by the police yet. It is said to be very graphic. Can you talk about how videos like this can be traumatic to watch? What is a healthy way to take them in?
I was just having a conversation with my students yesterday about the impact of these videos of police killings—especially this generation, as other researchers have called them, the “Trayvon generation.”
They have grown up with images of police violence in their back pockets throughout their lives, from the moment they engage in social media. So they grow up with pocket-sized chests in their backpacks.
Now videos of extraordinary violence have been used to motivate movements. And we also think about photography, which has that potential.
So as a researcher, one of the ways I share with students to engage with these videos is to think about them analytically and consciously align with the target of police violence.
Tune in to the side of George Floyd or Tire Nichols, if I were to watch this video. This is how I would go in. And often people can view these videos by critically looking for a “justification” to legitimize the violence. Looking at it solely from the perspective of the police.
And one of the things I encourage people to do, through my work and my teaching and my writing, is to look at the world from the perspective of the person who is being targeted by the police. And the people who are often the targets of police abuse, police surveillance and police violence.
So if I were to look at the video, it would be through that lens and perspective.