How Memphis’s Policing Strategy Went So Wrong
David A. Graham discusses what he saw and heard in the city after video footage was released of Tyre Nichols’s fatal beating by police.
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The Atlantic staff writer David A. Graham has been thinking and writing about Memphis’s policing crisis for several months now. This past weekend, he went back to survey the aftermath of released video footage of Tyre Nichols’s fatal beating by police officers. David is at work on a story about where police reform goes from here, and I called him today to talk a bit about what he saw and heard over the weekend, and how Memphis’s policing strategy led to tragedy.
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Isabel Fattal: You were in Memphis over the weekend. What did you hear from residents of the city?
David A. Graham: The sense I got from people in Memphis is that they are glad the city moved so quickly to fire these officers, and they’re glad the district attorney moved so quickly to prosecute. But it’s not enough. They want to know more about the incident. It’s unclear why Tyre Nichols was pulled over. They want to see action against the other officer who tased Tyre Nichols and who has been relieved from duty but has not been fired. They want to know who else was involved. We’ve seen the SCORPION [Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods] unit that these officers were members of disbanded, but they want to see the broader organized-crime unit in the department disbanded. And they want this to not happen again. The city is saying the right things, but the trick is avoiding it in the future.
Isabel: You wrote last Friday that “one of the more remarkable things about the video is that it exists.” To what extent is police activity surveilled in Memphis?
David: Often, when we learn about these incidents, it’s because of bystander video. But in this case, as far as we know, no bystanders were involved. People didn’t come out of the houses around there. I went to the scene on Saturday, and it’s a quiet suburban street. But there is something called SkyCop, which is this surveillance system all over Memphis. It’s really eerie: There are these twinkling blue lights 15 or so feet off the ground, and there are surveillance cameras, which I think are hard to miss, whether you’re a civilian or a police officer. And these officers were wearing body cams.
We’ve seen cases where officers have tried to manipulate body cams. But there’s no effort to hide this. In the video, there’s nothing that suggests they thought they made a mistake, either morally or as a matter of police work.
Isabel: During your past reporting in Memphis, you heard from residents in places with high crime that the city is simultaneously under-policed and over-policed. Can you talk a bit about that?
David: When you’ve got a spike in violent crime—as you did in Memphis, and in a lot of other American cities in 2020—one of the solutions that a lot of departments turn to is hot-spot policing, where you put a lot of officers in an area where there’s crime. We know from experience in a lot of cities that hot-spot policing can drive down crime, but the question is how it does that.
One way you can do it is by sweeping a lot of people up—just arresting a lot of people, stopping people on pretext, and seeing what you can get them on. That may stop crime, but it also creates animosity between residents and the police department. It seeks out people for things that have nothing to do with public safety, and because of where a lot of this hot-spot policing is done, it leads to a lot of Black men being arrested.
So in Memphis, this SCORPION unit was created in 2021 to deal with violent crime and the sorts of public-safety issues that residents are complaining about. And what you see them doing instead, in this case, is terrorizing and killing a citizen who at the worst was driving unsafely, from what we know. So I think it’s a clear example of under-policing and over-policing. They’re not doing anything to stop violent crime, but they are abusing citizens.
Isabel: You wrote last week, “The problem with a troubled department like Memphis’s adopting a tool like hot-spot policing is that culture tends to triumph over tactics.” Why was hot-spot policing a mistake for Memphis?
David: If you have a police department that has a history of excessive force, like Memphis’s does, and you institute a new tactic like hot-spot policing but you don’t do anything to change the underlying culture of the department, then you’re going to get abuses in hot-spot policing.
In the aftermath of Nichols’s death, the mayor of Memphis said that an outside review will help determine whether this is a matter of training or a matter of culture. You can’t watch a video like that and think, Well, if only they had been trained better. No police officer is trained to savagely beat someone like that. It’s not that they needed to be told that. It’s that there’s a problem with the culture.
Isabel: How do you think Nichols’s death might affect the national conversation about police reform?
David: Each of these situations does have its own unique factors and local context. But the national horror that we have seen reflects not only just how visceral this video is but also the fact that we are familiar with this.
It’s always hard for me to know when one of these stories will become a national story. I think this one did partly because the video is so visceral, but also because people are primed for this. They’ve seen so many of these cases. And I think every time we have one of them, it’s a reminder that there was a moment after George Floyd’s death when people were unified on this and there were some changes, but there’s still a lot of work to do to make sure that people are experiencing just policing around the country.
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For a more detailed analysis of the Memphis Police Department’s troubled history, David recommends this recent New York Times opinion essay by the Memphis-based journalist Emily Yellin. “One reason I wanted to focus on Memphis when I started writing about it was that it’s really similar to a lot of cities but also has its own distinctive characteristics,” David told me. Yellin’s article helps situate this recent tragedy within the city’s particular history.
Kelli María Korducki contributed to this newsletter.