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Tyre Nichols died on Jan. 10 in Memphis, after five officers beat him during an arrest. Body camera and surveillance footage released Friday night shows officers repeatedly punching, kicking and pepper spraying Nichols, as well as striking him with a baton and shocking him with Tasers. Afterward, as he laid on the ground battered, officers failed to render aid and instead, some smoked cigarettes. Friday night, protesters demonstrated in Memphis and other cities, from New York and Philadelphia to Los Angeles and Seattle.
The case touches on several of the tragic themes that have come up throughout my career: police violence, a city in the midst of reform, nevertheless rocked by police brutality — even the fact of a young Black man calling out for his mother or grandmother during a police beating was grimly familiar. But there was one element that’s drawn attention:
All five of the officers — who were subsequently fired and charged with crimes — were Black, as is the city police chief and a majority of Memphis police officers. This isn’t unprecedented in police violence cases — three of the six officers who were charged and eventually cleared in the 2015 death of Freddie Gray were Black, for example. But cases like this inevitably raise questions about how much the race of police officers affects how they do the job.
For more insights, I reached out to my colleague Wilbert L. Cooper, who comes from a family of Black police officers. Will has been working on a project about Black police officers, and I was hoping that some of his research and reporting would help me understand these questions better. We distilled our chat into the Q&A that follows, adding sources and context where needed.
Jamiles Lartey: Will, why is this an important moment to look at the question of Black police officers?
Wilbert L. Cooper: The race of the officers is clearly at the forefront of everyone’s mind in Memphis right now. Speaking about the officers who face charges for the murder of her son, Tyre Nichols’ mother, RowVaughn Wells, told CNN, “They have brought shame to their own families. They brought shame to the Black community. I just feel sorry for them. I really do.” So, on one side, there’s this feeling that these officers failed to live up to the unique burden put on Black cops, to be a bulwark for their community against the racialized violence associated with law enforcement.
Meanwhile, the chief of police, Cerelyn “CJ” Davis, told the network that “[The fact that the officers were Black] takes race off the table, but it does indicate to me that bias might be a factor also in the manner in which we engage the community.” This gets at the idea that this incident was beyond the identity of individual officers, and points to deeper, systemic issues within the department.
These are themes that I talk a lot about with my family. And weirdly, I get the feeling that their experience as Black officers leads them to believe that both thoughts contain some truth.
JL: There is some research that suggests the presence of Black officers can reduce violence and other negative police encounters, right?
WC: Research findings are mixed. A study released this month by the Ford School Center for Racial Justice at the University of Michigan notes that that while a lot of early research found weak links between the race of officers and their conduct, much of it didn’t account for the fact that Black officers are often assigned high-crime areas with larger numbers of Black people.
A recent paper they cite found that Black officers make far fewer discretionary stops of Black civilians. Those researchers concluded that if you account for different patrol assignments, Black officers appear to be less likely to stop, arrest, and use force against civilians, especially Black ones. They also appear to be more responsive to Black crime victims than their White counterparts.
JL: Say more about discretionary stops. What role do they play?
The point about fewer discretionary stops is important because those stops are often what lead to violent and brutal arrests, like the one in Memphis. As The Movement for Black Lives said in a statement Friday, “Had those officers not pulled Tyre over, he would be here right now with his 4-year-old son, taking photos of sunsets and skateboarding, his passion since he was a child.”
I think the conclusions in studies like this are why we will continue to see diversity efforts like the police recruitment at HBCUs reported on by our colleague Stan Donaldson. And given how hard White racists tried to keep Black people out of policing back in the day, it certainly feels like more Black cops could be a shield against at least some of the race-related problems in policing.
JL: There are studies that find the exact opposite though, right? That Black cops are as likely, or in some cases even more likely, to discriminate against Black citizens and that fatal force can even increase with the proportion of Black officers?
WC: There are. One Harvard Law Review paper, Policing Our Own, notes that Black officers can harbor “same-race” bias, and may try to conform to the cultural norms of their departments by over-policing Black people. In that piece, the authors raise the concern that “racial diversity without meaningful reallocations or redistributions of power might not only limit the possibilities for social transformation, but also potentially reproduce and legitimize the very forms of inequality the pursuit of racial diversity was intended to address.”
And as the Center for Policing Equity pointed out in a statement about Nichols’ death in Memphis, “Any officer working in [policing] risks finding themselves engaged in behavior that is racist in nature, even if they do not, personally, hold racist beliefs or are themselves, Black.”
JL: You mentioned how hard White racists worked to keep Black people out of police departments back in the day. The Memphis department was actually under a federal consent decree all the way back in the late 1970s over this, right?
WC: Yeah, for much of the 20th century, Black people were systematically kept out of the Memphis police department. According to historian W. Marvin Dulaney, a mayor in the 1920s said that keeping them out was integral to the preservation of “white supremacy.”
Even when they did enter the force in the ‘40s and ‘50s, they had little power and small numbers. By the ‘70s, lawsuits were filed seeking to reform the department’s recruiting, hiring, and promotion practices, which resulted in racial quotas mandated by a federal judge. My great-uncle was a member of the Black policing organization that filed similar lawsuits in Cleveland, and both of my parents were hired as a result.
JL: Where’s Memphis at now, in terms of police diversity?
WC: Although those quotas inspired some reverse-racism lawsuits from White officers, they appear to have made an impact, even if they didn’t reach their goal of representing the city’s demographics inside the department. According to Memphis’ FOX affiliate, Black people make up 65% of the city and 56% of the MPD. Federal data from 2016 tells us that police departments across the country are significantly whiter than their communities, with differentials often greater than 20 percentage points, Memphis is closer to parity than most cities.
JL: A lot of these diversity efforts were done with the hope that Black officers would have lower rates of use of force, especially in dealing with Black citizens. Do we know if those efforts have produced any positive results in Memphis?
WC: Despite its relative diversity, the department has had ongoing issues with excessive use of force, and officers of both races have been involved in recent cases of alleged brutality. In 2019, now-former officer William Skelton, who is White, was charged with a crime after he repeatedly used pepper spray on a handcuffed Black man. In 2015, three Black officers were accused of punching and kicking another handcuffed Black man. The three were suspended, but not charged with crimes.
According to local TV station WREG, which pulled available records from 2019, the department disproportionately uses force against Black people. While White people comprise 29% of the population, they only made up 11% of the incidents analyzed by WREG. Black citizens were ensnared in 84% of the incidents. Black and White officers used force at about the same rates in Memphis. But it doesn’t always make sense to compare the two groups directly, because there could be bias in how they’re deployed or other factors.
JL: So what can we take from all of this?
WC: In general, we should shy away from drawing broad conclusions from individual cases. But the killing of Tyre Nichols certainly demonstrates that the presence of Black officers and even leadership is anything but a miracle cure for curbing brutal and racially-biased policing.