A Few Bad apples or a Blighted Orchard? Why the Murder of Tyre Nichols Represents a Dysfunctional Police Culture

You know me as a writer, but some issues are bigger than anyone’s personal writing career. You may not like or agree with what I have to say, below, but I think it needs to be said.

Most people who watch the video of Tyre Nichols being beaten, kicked, and pepper-sprayed enough to kill him are horrified. The behavior of the officers who beat Tyre Nichols was called by the Memphis Chief of Police, “a failing of basic humanity toward another individual.” She promised that the officers involved would be held accountable and that their behavior does not represent the behavior or training of the Memphis Police Department. A common reaction is to blame the particular police officers involved and to reassure the public that they do not represent the majority of dedicated, law-abiding, compassionate officers who make up our country’s state, county and city police force, but is that true?

The data are clear that racism is involved in tragedies such as what happened to Tyre Nichols, as well as Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, George Floyd and literally hundreds of other black men and women. Relative to their numbers in the U.S. population, Black males are much more likely to be stopped by police for even minor traffic infractions, and when they are stopped, they are more likely to be victims of police violence. Apologists for police behavior try to explain that Blacks commit more crimes per capita in our society, which is why they are more often stopped and arrested, but this argument, in addition to being circular, doesn’t explain minor traffic violation stops, nor the use of violence against unarmed citizens. I spent a day in a county courtroom several years ago, waiting to testify on a case. It turned out that I waited all day, and the case was never called. Instead, there was a steady parade of minor traffic violations, often non-visible ones, such as lacking proof of insurance, that were heard by the judge. Despite living in a county where Blacks are only about 2% of the population, the majority of these cases for non-visible violations were against Black men. These were men who had apparently been stopped for no reason at all and their “crime” only became evident when they were asked to provide proof of insurance. Virtually all of them were told by the judge that, if they pleaded guilty and showed that they now had proof of insurance, they would receive a small fine and that would be the end of it. I could hardly believe seeing such obvious evidence of racial profiling as these traffic stops, yet neither law enforcement nor the judge ever questioned the legitimacy of what was going on.

So, racism plays a part in incidents such as the horrible death of Tyre Nichols, but it’s not just racism that is the culprit. In 1971, Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo conducted an experiment in which he randomly assigned young men to be either “guards” or “prisoners.” Within a week the experiment needed to be stopped because the guards treated the prisoners so inhumanely. Zimbardo went on to study how apparently normal people, when immersed in a culture that demands obedience and codifies a standard of violence in its members’ behavior toward another group (prisoners, Jews, terrorists, etc.) will fairly rapidly adapt their behavior to fit the culture’s values, even if they differ radically from what the individual did and believed before. He gave countless examples, including how  Nazi soldiers treated Jews during the Holocaust. When we try to blame “evil” individuals for following what are malignant cultural norms, we are making a mistake, because by focusing on the individual’s behavior, we lose the ability to develop a constructive way to change that behavior.

Several years ago, I had an eye-opening experience with regard to the power of the police culture in affecting its members’ behavior. I worked for the county mental health department, which was an enlightened one that had recently begun a program of inserting mental health professionals into police units that responded to calls that appeared to have a mental health component (e.g., suicidal behavior, persons becoming public nuisances, homeless people, etc.). I received a call from a mental health consumer of my acquaintance who was suicidal and had called 911 to say they wanted to kill themselves. I talked to the woman, and she quickly decided not to commit suicide, however, the police knocked on her door while she and I were on the telephone. She left the phone off the hook and interacted with the police. The unit who responded to her call included a social worker from county mental health. I listened on the open phone line as the social worker joined with the police in threatening and bullying the suicidal woman with threats of long incarceration or shock treatment, of losing her children and a variety of negative outcomes if she insisted, she was suicidal. When she convinced them she was not suicidal they finally left but with more threats as to what would happen if she called to threaten suicide again. When the poor woman resumed her conversation with me, she was clearly traumatized by the interaction with both the police and the social worker. I happened to know the social worker’s supervisor, so I immediately called him and reported what had happened. He told me that a problem with the program of using mental health workers to join police units is that, instead of the police becoming more empathetic toward the people with whom they interacted, the mental health workers began to be less empathetic and more intimidating toward the victims, as if they were trying to “fit in” to the police culture.

When police officers behave horrendously and with violence toward citizens, we usually blame the particular police officers who are involved. If the victim is Black, we also blame the officer’s racism, even if the officer is also Black, since racist stereotypes can exist within a race not just across races. But the real culprit may be the culture, which rewards violence and bullying as a way of establishing an officer’s credibility with his or her peers as well as the accepted way to interact with the public or at least some segment of the public (e.g., Blacks, Hispanics, homeless, poor, drug users). It is a culture that is fueled by an underlying fear for the officers’ own personal safety, which is a real issue. Apparently, the officers in the unit that stopped Tyre Nichols had received training that not only demonstrated the dangers to police officers when making routine traffic stops but exaggerated those dangers.

Police are in a truly dangerous job, and they maintain stereotypes of who is dangerous and who isn’t, and these stereotypes are often racist. Their culture encourages them to respond to danger by being powerful, intimidating, bullying and violent. They are rewarded by their peers for maintaining this culture. If we focus on the individuals who are involved in each of these horrific incidents, we are missing the larger picture, which is a culture that rewards the very behavior that we criticize them for. We need to address these cultural issues and these issues of not feeling safe instead of focusing on the individuals who are involved and claiming that they are “bad apples” that don’t represent the majority of law enforcement. They represent a law enforcement mentality that produces people who behave as they do, and it’s that mentality that causes and supports such behavior.

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1 thought on “A Few Bad apples or a Blighted Orchard? Why the Murder of Tyre Nichols Represents a Dysfunctional Police Culture”

  1. Thank you, Casey for your insight. I agree with your comments. I also studied Zimbardo’s experiment and was horrified at its outcome! I keep hoping there will be a breakthrough, but I don’t think we can ever reach a leveling stage considering the current condition’s magnitude and comparing it to the Civil War (if it’s a fair comparison). Like you, I am FVHS 62 vintage. Keep up the good work!

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