Memphis Demolishes the Racist Cops Narrative | Opinion

The fact that all of the actors involved in the disturbing killing of Tyre Nichols were black—the Memphis police officers, as well as the victim—necessitates a sober reassessment of the police violence issue. Certainly, Memphis seems to demolish the overly simplistic racist motivation analysis. The media tried to preserve its prized narrative by pointing to the history of police racism and abuse in Memphis. But this hardly seems relevant to the conduct of several black police officers in a force led by a black female police chief in the 21st century.

We need to begin with the facts about police use-of-force and African Americans. Robert VerBruggen, writing for the Manhattan Institute, has cogently summarized what we know and don't know. Police fatally shoot around 1,000 civilians annually. Of the fatalities involving unarmed civilians, roughly 34% (22 per year) are black. Though higher than the black proportion of the general U.S. population (12-13%), 34% matches or falls below the percentage of black arrestees for violent crimes, such as assault, weapons violations, or murder. In fact, blacks comprise more than half of all arrests for murder and manslaughter alone. This necessarily means that they are disproportionately likely to find themselves in violent confrontations with police.

What counts most in assessing police conduct, however, is not the race/ethnicity of the citizen or the police officer, but the circumstances surrounding any particular confrontation. That is what makes what happened in Memphis so disturbing. Though not all of the facts are in—especially those regarding the initial stages of the confrontation—the case certainly appears to be a brutally violent overreaction to a fleeing, though nonviolent, suspect.

But what happened in Memphis is not typical. The CDC collects data on "legal intervention" deaths, as the agency calls police killings, and found the following in 2019.

First, police killings only comprised 1.4% of all violent deaths; suicide and homicide not involving law enforcement comprised 90% of all deaths due to violence. In other words, self-killings and slayings by private citizens far outstrip police-caused fatalities.

Second and most important, the police killings were almost always accompanied by extenuating circumstances. In nearly eight out of 10 cases (78%), the deceased was committing, or had committed, a crime—usually a homicide or assault. In 71% of the incidents, the deceased had used a weapon. Nearly two-thirds of all the shooting victims had mental health (26%) or substance abuse (30% drugs; 11% alcohol) problems.

In short, lethal confrontations with the police do not bear the signs of systemic abuse. Rather, they suggest that the use of force was more often than not easily warranted.

Moreover, given the 2019 figures on race/ethnicity and police killings—non-Hispanic whites were 44% of the victims; non-Hispanic blacks, 29%; Hispanics, 19%—the systemic racism narrative seems wildly inappropriate. And Memphis should lay that claim to rest once and for all.

To be sure, I am not asserting there are no cases of race bias in policing. The operative word here is "systemic"—meaning, built into day-to-day operations. If "systemic racism" does not explain police behavior and some other overarching explanation is also wanting, then the facts and circumstances of each particular case must be examined. This suggests that the "rotten apple" explanation has the most cogency: Some officers, a tiny percentage, abuse their authority and dishonor the badge.

Police officers stand behind a cordon after
Police officers stand behind a cordon after a fatal shooting in New York City on February 9, 2023. PETER GERBER/AFP via Getty Images

That brings us to possible solutions. Those will be hard to achieve.

Bias sensitivity training is pointless, as has been demonstrated. What about violence reduction training? This, too, is unlikely to work. Though police seldom use their guns, criminals often do. Violent crime in America usually means gun violence. Nearly three-quarters of all homicide victims in the United States are shot to death. Law enforcement agents may not be able to recite the data, but they are well aware of the situation. They know that unlike knives, bludgeons, fists, and feet, a gun can wound or kill a cop without hand-to-hand combat—and a handgun can easily be hidden. So in a split second, an officer must decide to risk his life and spare the civilian, or risk his career and shoot first. Given this situation and the typical circumstances in which police resort to violence (see above), restraint training for police is not going to make much of a difference.

What will? The best response to an apparent case of police abuse is local, precisely as the Memphis authorities handled the Nichols case. Police chiefs and county district attorneys should investigate, impose departmental sanctions where appropriate, and prosecute where necessary. Federal intervention should only be a backup option for a clear failure of local authorities to pursue justice.

Indeed, federal restraint used to be the affirmative policy of the United States Justice Department. DOJ has a longstanding policy, the so-called "Petite rule," that is supposed to govern federal prosecutions following state charges for the same alleged misconduct. The policy states that DOJ seeks to "protect persons charged with criminal conduct from the burdens associated with multiple prosecutions and punishments for substantially the same act(s)." Unfortunately, the policy is discretionary, as we saw in the infamous George Floyd case, where federal charges were piled on top of state prosecutions even though the state could hardly have been more aggressive in convicting the underlying officers.

In addition, the George Floyd Act, which passed the House of Representatives in 2021 and is now up for reconsideration, undercuts the Petite rule by making federal civil rights convictions easier to obtain and stripping police officers of "qualified immunity" in civil suits. This legislation also conditions federal grants to local police departments on the establishment of training programs to prevent racial profiling or excessive use of force.

The death of Tyre Nichols, followed by the near-immediate cashiering and prosecution of the officers involved, teaches us that federal intervention is seldom necessary and that many of the "solutions" in the George Floyd Act expend resources on pointless and ineffectual programs. Those resources would be better deployed elsewhere, where they can do more to truly secure justice for all.

Barry Latzer is emeritus professor of criminal justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and author of The Myth of Overpunishment: A Defense of the American Justice System and a Proposal to Reduce Incarceration While Protecting the Public.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

Correction: A sentence in the second paragraph has been reworded to reflect the statistical fact that approximately 22 unarmed black civilians (and not 340) are slain by police each year. Newsweek regrets the poor phrasing of the original sentence.