Every officer in the country should be required to watch the brutal beating of Tyre Nichols | COMMENTARY

Shortly after the Memphis Police Department released video Friday night showing five of its officers wildly beating the life out of an unarmed, 29-year-old, amateur photographer named Tyre Nichols, the president of Maryland’s Fraternal Order of Police issued a statement.

“What I witnessed in that video was horrific. It was a barbaric assault on another human being and is sickening,” the statement from Clyde Boatwright said. “This does not represent policing or the men and women who wear a badge and dutifully protect their communities. I hesitate to even call these men police officers, because what I saw on that video is not policing.”


We wish he were right, that this horrific incident of a young Black man being stripped of his humanity and his very life by police officers drunk on their own power were somehow singular. But it’s not. That’s a fiction. Nichols’ tragic death is only the latest in a string of unchecked brutality against Black men by police in America.

Other killings might not be as graphic as this one or as obviously wrong from the moment they were known. But the Black men executed by officers — kneeling on their necks (George Floyd, 2020); or shooting them while sitting peacefully in their cars (Philando Castile, 2016) or in the back, running away fearful and unarmed (Walter Scott, 2015); or showing apathy to their broken necks in the back of a police van (Freddie Gray, 2015); or suffocating them in a chokehold after hearing them say, repeatedly, they can’t breathe (Eric Garner, 2014) and on and on — are victims of the same cop culture that took away Nichols’ future and traumatized his family. It’s a culture that too often tells officers they are at war against an enemy of “bad guys” rather than working in harmony with communities to keep peace; a culture that leads too many to view their badges as a license to kill, rather than an obligation to help; a culture that’s steeped in racism, even when the officers themselves are Black.


Nichols had been out at a nearby park on Jan. 7 — photographing the sunset as he often did, his family said — before he was pulled over by police for what was alleged to be reckless driving, though there’s no evidence to substantiate it. Their body-worn camera recordings don’t show what happened prior to the stop, or why they are so ramped up from the start. It begins with an officer arriving on the scene, where two unmarked cars have blocked in Nichols, and leaping from his vehicle with his gun drawn. Nichols is yanked from his car, and over a period of 13 minutes, he’s issued 71 commands, according to a New York Times analysis, many of which are impossible to follow. He’s told to get on the ground, when he’s already there; to give up his hands, when officers have them pinned; to lie flat when he’s nearly unconscious.

The officers kick, Tase, pepper spray and punch Nichols over and over, even as the young man calls out for his mother — “Mom, mom, mom” — in a heart-wrenching parallel to the 2020 murder of George Floyd, who cried out “Momma! Momma!” as his own life was being taken. Reports over the weekend said Nichols’ mother couldn’t watch the full video. We hope she never does. No one’s child should experience what hers did, and no mother should have those images seared in her memory.

But there is one group who must watch it: police. Every officer at every station in the country should be forced to view the recording, alongside their superiors, and then dissect it. Where do they recognize themselves? Their policies? Their egos? What is the risk that it will be them in the next video?

One difference in the killing of Nichols, who died three days after the beating, compared to other deaths by police is in the swiftness with which officials acted to condemn it. Within a few weeks, five officers involved in the incident had been fired and charged with second-degree murder (a sixth officer was “relieved of duty” Monday), the video had been released, and the elite unit the officers were a part of was disbanded. There was less of the obfuscation seen in other such killings. Unfortunately, that’s what counts for progress in these incidents today — the speed with which they’re dealt with. We’d like to see the same level of urgency undertaken to prevent such horrors, rather than respond to them.

In his statement, the FOP’s Boatwright referenced the “historic police reform” Maryland has taken on in the past five years to “ensure these types of actions don’t occur” here. He did not mention the impetus for the reform: Freddie Gray’s death and the subsequent finding by the U.S. Department of Justice that the Baltimore Police Department had long engaged in a “pattern or practice” of unconstitutional policing.

We pray the reform efforts are working. But it’s hard to have faith when community groups say they don’t “feel it” or when the federal judge overseeing the effort asks — even if provocatively — whether city officers might now be using too little force on the job.

Until every officer is as determined to prevent brutality as they are to make an arrest, and to see those whom they police as individuals with complicated histories just like the officers themselves, we fear the senseless killings will continue.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.