The Tyre Nichols video and the overdue promise of police reform

Helen Ubiñas
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

I guess they expected us to be grateful for the warning.

Before Memphis police released the body cam footage of the Jan. 7 fatal beating of Tyre Nichols at the hands of its officers, nearly everyone who'd already seen the video warned it would be "heinous" and "inhumane."

And it was. Nichols was tortured. You can describe the hour of footage in all sorts of ways — sadistic, graphic, shocking — but that is the bottom line. A 29-year-old man was tortured after a traffic stop by five Black officers who gave him 71 contradictory commands in 13 minutes, and seemed to take glee in watching him writhe in pain.

MORE:Nichols' death shows complexities of police violence — and urgency of reform

MORE:Impassioned calls for police reform made at Tyre Nichols' funeral

Demonstrators gather outside the White House, Friday, Jan. 27, 2023, in Washington, to protest over the death of Tyre Nichols, who died after being beaten by Memphis police officers on Jan. 7. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

The advisory about the video was meant to prepare and reassure the public: Officials weren't waiting for widespread outrage to act. The five officers who were directly involved in the confrontation with Nichols were quickly fired and indicted on multiple charges, including murder. Nichols died in the hospital three days later. Two more officers, at least one of whom is white, were taken off-duty as the investigation continued.

And while it made some kind of sense to brace a country traumatized by the killing of Black men by the police, the countdown to the release of the footage on Friday ended up feeling a lot less like care and a lot more like a calculation.

The message was carefully managed to soothe the public: Yes, it happened again. Yes, it was horrific, again. But — these cops aren't going to get away with it.

See — justice.

This photo provided by the Nichols family shows Tyre Nichols, who had a passion for photography and was described by friends as joyful and lovable. Nichols was just minutes from his home in Memphis, Tenn., on Jan. 7, 2023, when he was pulled over by police and fatally beaten. Five Memphis police officers have since been charged with second-degree murder and other offenses. (Courtesy of the Nichols family via AP)

A showy imitation of justice, anyway. More than 30 years after Rodney King's brutal beating by police in Los Angeles put a spotlight on police brutality, and just over 30 months after George Floyd's murder in 2020 by Minneapolis police summoned a national reckoning, this is where we are:

We are still waiting on wholesale change that's long been needed to save more Black and brown people from bad officers. But instead, we are now watching law enforcement agencies focus more on effectively stage-managing the release of videos depicting police brutality than actually doing what needs to be done to address police brutality.

Nationwide, police officers killed more people in 2022 than during any other year in the past decade.

And all that controversial "defund the police" talk in 2020 has largely given way to even the most progressive leaders softening — and in some cases outright changing — their tunes.

Just last week, Philadelphia mayoral candidate Jeff Brown told a crowd in Northeast Philly that "more police and more money for police" was "the No. 1 priority" — days after telling residents in West Philadelphia that he'd oppose increasing the police budget. Who knows: Maybe Brown will visit voters in another neighborhood next week and tell them that he's changed his mind about policing yet again.

Brown's most recent comments came the day before the Nichols video was made public.

The countdown to Friday's release of the footage by Memphis police reminded me of another run-up to a big reveal that was much less horrific, but which I found to be similarly unsettling.

Last year, Philadelphia police announced that after more than six decades of being known as the "Boy in the Box," they had finally determined the identity of the once-anonymous child whose bruised body was found in a weed-strewn lot in Fox Chase in 1957.

But, after an initial news report about the development, it took days for officials to reveal his identity during a news conference meant to give credit to people who had dedicated their lives to getting justice for a forgotten little boy.

It was clearly a reason for celebration, but I couldn't help but imagine a world where the city was committed to an all-hands-on deck approach to every unsolved murder in Philadelphia.

That would be real justice.

In Memphis, real justice would mean the wholesale systematic overhaul of law enforcement — finally — so that Americans wouldn't have to be subjected to the brutality that seems baked into the culture of policing. Or, as Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass put it, "the chilling familiarity of a Black man crying out for his mother as he is beaten to death by officers of the law sworn to protect us."

Nichols was left slumped to the ground in handcuffs, and 23 minutes passed before a stretcher arrived at the scene. Three Memphis Fire Department employees who responded to the call have been fired.

The U.S. attorney has opened a federal civil rights investigation into the incident. And while there were nationwide demonstrations following the release of the video — with more planned leading up to Nichols' funeral Wednesday — I couldn't help but notice that they didn't seem to be on the scale of the 2020 protests.

Part of that, I think, is because Nichols' family asked for calm. "It's going to be horrific," said Nichols' mother RowVaughn Wells. "But I want each and every one of you to protest in peace. I don't want us burning up our cities, tearing up the streets, because that's not what my son stood for."

It's been nearly three years since George Floyd was killed, and the kinds of changes in police procedure that so many have been demanding aren't just a long way off — they seem to be moving farther away.

We are a nation reeling from constant trauma. We are angry and exhausted, and rightly so, but we can't let fatigue and piecemeal justice distract us from working to ensure that promises made in 2020 aren't just not forgotten, but kept.