The heartbreak and anger in writing about the police is that they never run out of people to kill.
Right after I heard about the cop who killed Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, a protester against the multi-million dollar police facility that the city of Atlanta is tearing down a forest to build on, I learned about Tire Nichols. Tire was a young black man who loved to skate and take pictures. Memphis police detained him in a vehicle on January 7. He fled – which is fair because police routinely kill black people and he wanted to live. Cops often punish people who flee, as did the officers who took Freddie Gray on a “rough ride” in 2015 for running. MPD beat him and took him to the hospital. He died three days later.
I noticed right away that almost all the reforms that liberals are proposing will save black lives were present in Tire’s death. Diversity wasn’t a problem: the five cops who killed him are all black. The body cameras strapped to their chests didn’t stop their fists from delivering blow after blow. Memphis has about 2,000 agents, and if these were a “few bad apples” in the department issue, maybe they all worked on the same shift. The police did not shoot Tire; they chose a less lethal force: they beat him for three minutes, shocked him and sprayed him with pepper spray.
In fact, the Memphis Police Department prides itself on meeting all the hallmarks of Campaign Zero’s #8CantWait campaign, including a requirement for officers to intervene when other officers use excessive force and a requirement to de-escalate encounters with civilians . The ministry has had a consent decree for decades. MPD hired the first black police chief in 2021 and hosts Black History Knowledge bowls and basketball programs to “build trust” and build relationships with local teens.
Some proponents of police reform have been silent about the failure of these reforms and have loudly blamed qualified immunity – a doctrine that prevents police from being sued for misconduct. Those who care about justice should absolutely challenge qualified immunity, so long as they understand that the protections police are afforded by law are not the basis for their violence. The police beat and killed people before they had immunity. The job demands it, which is why abolitionists have fought to reduce and eliminate police funding, encounters with police, and the underlying reasons why officers have jobs in the first place.
Others pin their hopes on the prosecution. All five officers were arrested and charged with manslaughter, assault and kidnapping. They quickly posted bail and are currently free. I wonder, as I’ve written before, why increased police persecution didn’t stop these five men from beating Tire? They presumably know Derek Chauvin, the most recent high-profile cop convicted of murder following the murder of George Floyd. Did they dwell on Officer Kim Potter’s recent conviction for killing Daunte Wright? What about their fellow MPD officer Patric Ferguson, who was indicted and charged with murder in 2021 after killing a man in the backseat of his squad car and disposing of the body? Why don’t these prosecutions and convictions save lives? Police in the US executed more people last year than recorded in any previous year.
The answer I often get is that the police will stop killing black people once officers are more easily arrested, prosecuted more vigorously, convicted more quickly, sentenced more harshly, and sued more directly for damages. Not only will this never happen, the hope that it might one day happen requires the police to keep killing people so we can find out.
Disappointing as I am, I fully understand that some people genuinely believe in this set of reforms because they want to believe that anything, anything can be done to stop or at least reduce police killings right now. Others tout these reforms as benefiting from police protecting private property, threatening workers, enforcing racial hierarchies, surveilling citizens and more. Especially politicians. They line up the public in front of a theme park full of reforms and simply promise us that another ride would be worth our time, energy and effort. We need to get out of the park.
Organizers in Memphis appear to be doing just that. DeCarcerate Memphis issued a series of demands in the wake of Tire’s death, including data transparency; ending the use of unmarked police cars; removal of agents from traffic management; and the disbandment of special task force units within MPD. They recently won the demand to disband the unit that killed Tire, and have released a toolkit for the public to understand, replicate and support their other efforts. These non-reformist reforms diminish the role and power of the police, rather than simply changing the color of the people doing the harm.
Derecka Purnell is an American Guardian columnist. She is also a social movement advocate and writer based in Washington, DC. She is the author of Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom