The Police Folklore That Helped Kill Tyre Nichols
Thirty-four years ago, near the crest of the crack-cocaine-fuelled crime surge of the early nineteen-nineties, two F.B.I agents began a novel investigation of threats to police. One agent was a former police lieutenant in Washington, D.C. The other was also a Catholic priest with a doctorate in psychology. Together, they plunged into the prison system, interviewing fifty convicted cop killers. Most criminologists today call such research pseudoscience. A sample size of fifty was almost anecdotal, and why should anyone trust a cop killer, anyway? The agents also had no benchmark—no comparable interviews with criminals who had complied. Yet the sweeping conclusions of their study, “Killed in the Line of Duty,” made the front page of the Times, and, through decades of promotion by the Department of Justice, became ingrained in the culture of American law enforcement.
At the top of an inventory of “behavioral descriptors” linked to officers who ended up dead, the study listed traits that some citizens might prize: “friendly,” “well-liked by community and department,” “tends to use less force than other officers felt they would use in similar circumstances,” and “used force only as last resort.” The cop killers, the agents concluded from their prison conversations, had attacked officers with a “good-natured demeanor.” An officer’s failure to dominate—to immediately enforce full control over the suspect—proved fatal. “A miscue in assessing the need for control in particular situations can have grave consequences,” the authors warned.
Although few patrolmen today explicitly cite the study, some of its findings survive as police folklore, like the commonplace that unshined shoes can make an officer a target. Most significant, the study’s core lesson about the imperative to dominate dovetailed with a nineties-era turn in law-enforcement culture toward what was known as a “warrior mind-set,” teaching officers to see almost any civilian as a potentially lethal assassin—an approach that many police trainers still advertise, even as the cops-vs.-citizens mentality has fallen out of favor among many police chiefs.
The killing, this month, of Tyre Nichols by police in Memphis is the latest reminder that the dominate-or-die impulse persists among some rank-and-file officers. Body-camera and surveillance videos released on Friday by the city of Memphis show that a cluster of officers appear to have beaten Nichols to death merely for defying their orders: commands like “Get on the ground,” “Lie flat, goddammit,” and “Give me your fucking hands.”
No evidence has yet emerged showing any justification for the police to have stopped Nichols, a twenty-nine-year-old FedEx worker and aspiring photographer with a four-year-old son. Nor does it appear that the officers gave him much reason for pulling him over. “Any charges on him?” a police operator asked over a radio in one video. There was no answer from the officers in the field. The police reports described his offense as “reckless driving.”
A battle to dominate Nichols appears to have propelled the encounter to its deadly conclusion. Police are taught never to reach into an open car door because a driver might hit the gas, dragging the officer. But after unmarked police cars had boxed Nichols in at a stoplight and he apparently refused to step out, one of the officers leaned deep inside the vehicle in order to force the driver out and hurl him to the ground.
As four officers grabbed at his arms, legs, and torso, Nichols’s words were mild. “I didn’t do anything! . . . All right, all right, all right, O.K. . . . I am on the ground, yes, sir, yes, sir. . . . All right, you guys are really doing a lot right now, I am just trying to go home.” The officers, though, shouted orders and expletives as if they were locked in a life-or-death struggle. “Get the fuck out of the fucking car. . . . Turn your ass around. . . . I am going to taze your shit. . . . I am going to knock your ass the fuck out.” Under a torrent of contradictory commands, Nichols appeared confused about how to comply.
Nichols was unarmed and physically unimposing. He suffered from Crohn’s disease, which had left him rail thin—six feet three and a hundred and forty-five pounds, according to his mother. The officers—all, like Nichols, were Black—each looked nearly twice his size. Later, in an exchange recorded after the beating, the officers suggested to one another that he had reached for their handguns. But the video footage makes that claim highly implausible, Seth W. Stoughton, an expert on the use of force and a former patrolman, told me.
In fact, several signs indicated that the officers never feared Nichols. Stoughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, who testified at the 2021 trial of a Minneapolis officer convicted of murdering George Floyd, noted that an officer typically shouts it out immediately if he sees a suspect reach for a weapon, and none did anything like that in the videos of their struggles with Nichols. When police threatened Nichols with a Taser at one point and a baton at another, the other officers loosened their grip on him to get out of the way. That self-protective flinching, in fact, is what allowed Nichols to escape on foot and flee toward the nearby home of his mother. And when Nichols was later captured and in handcuffs the officers turned their backs on him and bragged about their exertions like football players in a locker room after a hard-won victory. They would have kept a closer eye on someone they saw as dangerous.
Police are trained to weigh several factors before pursuing a suspect, including the potential danger to bystanders and the likelihood that the chase will end in a physical struggle. “The first factor is, why are we chasing him? What are we trying to get him for?” Stoughton said. After Nichols fled, the Memphis officers talked only of retaliating against him for his defiance. “I hope they stomp his ass,” one officer said, waving a fourth and fifth police vehicle to join in the hunt. If their goal was only to apprehend Nichols, the officers did not need to use a Taser, pepper spray, or baton. “Just dogpile him—the least technical thing possible,” Stoughton said. “Just get on top of him.”
The officers’ wild, punishing violence was what elevated Nichols’s arrest beyond countless other incidents of police aggression that never made the headlines. After catching Nichols again, the officers kicked him in the ribs and skull as he flailed on his back. They rained punches down on his face at a time when the pavement underneath him left no room for his head to recoil, potentially injuring his brain. Then one pulled out a nightstick. “I am going to baton the fuck out of you,” the officer yelled.
Most startling, three officers grappling from opposite sides seemed for a time to prop Nichols up on his feet as another swung a fist through the air at his head, like goons holding up a snitch for a Mafia boss in a movie. “I counted five strikes—big, heavy strikes, what looked like haymakers,” Stoughton said. Police academies often teach that blows to the face are not only potentially lethal but also virtually useless if the goal is compliance. “Very few people in the history of policing have been punched in the face and then decided to do what the officer was asking. Your instinctive reaction is ‘I need to get my hands up,’ or ‘I need to fight back,’ ” he said. “There is a difference between defensive force and assertive force,” Stoughton added. “The officers here were trying to assert control over Mr. Nichols, not defending themselves, and they were using applications of force that were gratuitous and egregiously unjustified—far above the amount that would have been appropriate or proportional to someone who was resisting the way he was resisting.” When Nichols leaned against a car in handcuffs, drifting out of consciousness, one officer even mocked his desperate calls for his mother during the beating. “He has a mother,” the officer said, dismissively. Nichols died three days later in a hospital.
The officers belonged to a unit of forty police called Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods, or scorpion—an acronym that does little to invite community trust. Memphis created the unit in November, 2021, to address a spike in murders and gun violence during the pandemic. Since then, the mayor has touted the unit’s success by citing statistics about the sheer volume of its activity—the amount of money, guns, and cars seized, or the number of suspects arrested. By disregarding whether the arrests end in convictions—or even reduce crime—such metrics encourage aggression, Stoughton said. “You are incentivizing quantity over legality. Thirty years of research tells us that is a bad idea.”
Targeted police units like scorpion, which concentrate on certain high-crime neighborhoods, have a checkered history. There were scandals at the Rampart unit, in Los Angeles, and the Gun Trace Task Force, in Baltimore, among others, and the Memphis Police Department said Saturday that it was disbanding the scorpion unit. “What is supposed to be targeted enforcement becomes ‘We run the streets around here,’ ” Stoughton said.
A growing number of police chiefs and district attorneys, though, argue that there is a way to prevent at least some needless killings like Tyre Nichols’s, by focussing on why the police pulled him over. Along with the shibboleth that a failure to dominate encourages cop killing, the nineties study helped implant a second myth in police culture as well—that stopping cars is exceptionally dangerous to officers. That notion rests on the misuse of a statistic: a large percentage of police killed on the job die at roadside pullovers. In reality, such encounters are so numerous that the odds of death at any given stop are no higher than in other police work.
Yet units like scorpion—created to go after gangs, guns, and drugs, not issue tickets for speeding and other traffic violations—often use such trivial infractions as a pretext to justify pulling over a car and looking inside it. Convinced that they risk their life each time they stop such a driver, many officers approach each encounter prepared for a life-or-death struggle. Few may be as hyperaggressive as the officers who killed Nichols, but their fear and belligerence can still evoke a reciprocal urge in a driver to talk back or flee, sparking a deadly cycle.
Stopping cars on little more than a hunch is also hopelessly inefficient. Five or more patrol cars and eight or more officers spent as much as an hour detaining Nichols on a night when they could have been targeting dangerous crime. Multiple studies have concluded that such a dragnet approach is ultimately an ineffective strategy for confiscating the guns, drugs, or other contraband that police seek in cars. Pretextual stops may even be counterproductive: they alienate law-abiding citizens in the high-crime neighborhoods where their coöperation is most essential. “We are talking about using a hammer on a problem that really requires a scalpel,” Stoughton said.
In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, police and prosecutors in jurisdictions from Philadelphia to Los Angeles are attempting to end pretextual stops altogether. The city of Fayetteville, North Carolina, was one of the first to try the experiment, a decade ago. Civilian complaints about the Fayetteville police plunged, and so did traffic fatalities, with no notable increase in gun violence or drug crime. Eliminating pretextual stops, in other words, may reduce crime more effectively than units like scorpion do. Tyre Nichols, of course, would still be alive if the police had never pulled him over. ♦
David D. Kirkpatrick is a staff writer for The New Yorker, where he started his career as a fact checker. In the interim, he worked for twenty-two years as a reporter for the New York Times, in New York, Washington, Cairo, and London. While at the Times, he shared Pulitzer Prizes for public service, international reporting, and national reporting. He is the author of “Into the Hands of the Soldiers: Freedom and Chaos in Egypt and the Middle East.”