The Killing of Tyre Nichols: Lethal Police Encounters Continue Unabated | NASW Member Voices

Feb 2, 2023

person wearing a face mask holds a placard with the word racism crossed out

By Mel Wilson, LCSW, MBA

The widely televised tape of Tyre Nichols being mercilessly beaten by members of the Memphis Police Department was shocking beyond words. Similar to the murder of George Floyd, the country (indeed the world) was again a witness to total disregard for the life of young black man by law enforcement.

The brutal killing of Mr. Nichols is a stark reality that the promise of police reform in the wake of George Floyd’s death was at best a fleeting notion —and at worse —an empty promise. In any event, it is evident that lethal of police encounters with young men of color is as problematic as ever.

As is known, all the Memphis police officers charged with the second-degree murder of Mr. Nichols are Black. Sadly, this tragedy inadvertently shattered the myth that racial diversity ꟷ especially where hiring Black police officers is concerned ꟷ would lead to reducing the use excessive and lethal violence against young men of color. That surely has not happened.

The fallacy is the assumption that Black police officers ꟷ or those from other communities of colorꟷ are less likely to use excessive force, during encounters with Black people, than their White counterparts. The truth is that police officers of color often identify with existing police culture. In reality, many Black law enforcement officers are imbued with the same anti-black bias as are some White officers.

 Also, there are those who suggest the fact that the accused police are all Black negates racism as the driving factor in the use of excessive force against Blacks. Nothing can be further from the truth. There is ample evidence that police brutality, more often than not, stems from structural racism that disproportionately impacts Black, Indigenous and other people of color.

Thus, as we all grieve over the murder of Mr. Nichols, we continue to be at a loss over how to bring an end to police violence against people of color. Clearly diversity ꟷ while important ꟷ is not in itself the solution. A more critical priority is not to lose sight of the fact that the culture of racism in law enforcement is real and must be eliminated.

A second priority is that President Biden and a bipartisan Congress must ꟷ at long last ꟷ pass comprehensive police reform legislation. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is a good starting point.  

There are two provisions that warrant mentioning here. They are:

  1. Ending  qualified immunity that shields law enforcement from being charged with civil rights violations during arrests; and
  2. Creating a nationwide police misconduct registry to help hold problematic officers accountable. Both provisions are essential for police accountability. Now is the time ꟷ as a tribute to Tyre Nichols ꟷ to put aside petty partisan differences and pass a strong policing reform bill.

Equally as important, there must be a recognition that Mr. Nichols’s murder is not just a concern for Black America. His death is a continuation of a national tragedy that has existed for centuries. The nation has to form a consensus that excessive force, against any citizen, is unambiguously a human rights violation.

Disclaimer: The National Association of Social Workers invites members to share their expertise and experiences through Member Voices. This blog was prepared by Mel Wilson in his personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect the view of the National Association of Social Workers.

About the Author

Mel Wilson, LCSW, MBA

Mel Wilson, LCSW, MBA, is the retired Senior Policy Advisor for the National Association of Social Workers. He continues to be active on a range social policy area including youth justice, immigration, criminal justice, and drug policy. He is a co-chairperson on the Justice Roundtable’s Drug Policy Reform Working Group.