Body camera footage capturing the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols by Memphis, Tennessee, police has continued to send shock waves since its release Friday, with law enforcement officers across the country calling it “reprehensible,” “murder” and a sign that change is needed in the city.
“This incident was so far outside of the bounds of acceptable use of force that I wasn’t sure what I was looking at,” one police patrol officer, who said he has nearly seven years experience, told HuffPost under the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “They knew that what they were doing was unwarranted. Nobody trains to deliver strikes like that anymore.”
“You don’t have to be a trained cop to know that what the entire world has now seen is wrong,” a sheriff’s deputy in Washington state, who said he has spent four years as a field training officer, similarly said under the condition of anonymity. “I [think] ... it was a murder and am disgusted and appalled by what I saw.”
In all, three current law enforcement officers and one now retired told Huffpost that the bodycam footage showed no signs that proper procedures were followed by police involved in the Jan. 7 incident.
Memphis Police Department Chief Cerelyn Davis, in a public statement before the footage’s release, called officers’ conduct during the traffic stop “not just a professional failing” but a “failing of basic humanity.”
Five officers were fired on Jan. 20 and later charged with second-degree murder, and an investigation is ongoing into others involved.
“It’s reprehensible. Nothing that happened in that situation is taught in any academy or field training officer program,” said an Oklahoma sheriff’s deputy, who boasts nine years of experience. “There were several opportunities to handcuff the victim. No opportunity was taken.”
The officers who spoke to HuffPost said that violent arrests like the one involving Nichols, who was unarmed, are unusual. They added that while the public has a right to be concerned about police brutality and excessive use of force, the overwhelming majority of daily incidents involving law enforcement officers result in no use of force.
“It’s reprehensible. Nothing that happened in that situation is taught in any academy or field training officer program.”
“I have never used significant physical force other than minimal physical contact like grabbing an arm, walking someone to a car or applying handcuffs on a compliant suspect,” the Washington deputy said of his own experience.
Annually, an average of more than 1,000 people are killed by police in the U.S., according to an ongoing analysis by The Washington Post that began in 2015. The majority of those killed were reportedly armed with a gun. Black people are disproportionately shot, with the Mapping Police Violence database finding that they made up 26% of those killed in 2022, despite accounting for only 13% of the population.
“Yes, we have seen egregious examples of force used on compliant suspects, and it’s absolutely unacceptable,” the Washington deputy said of high-profile incidents like the one involving Nichols, who was Black. “But those examples are the exception rather than the norm when compared holistically to policing in the U.S.”
“Always hold us accountable when we mess up. But on the same page, help us to be better,” said the Oklahoma deputy. “I do my job, and I do it well. And it infuriates me when a group of brutes halfway across the country make it harder. It also upsets me that a large portion of the public only sees a uniform and dehumanizes the person behind it. I’m not Memphis PD. No cop I know defends what they did.”
All three current officers who spoke to HuffPost said they had not personally witnessed excessive use of force by a law enforcement officer, and all three said they would intervene if they did. The Oklahoma sheriff’s deputy said they once intervened when they saw a situation getting out of hand and “that person was fired promptly.”
Two of the current officers shared the concern that in general, not enough training is provided to police in part due to staffing shortages and financial resources.
“The issue with overhauling training is manpower and money,” said the Washington deputy. “They cannot afford to have cops be off shift 25% of their time for a devoted training day, because it’s expensive to backfill the patrol position with overtime and they don’t often have enough staffing to even consider it. It’s an oxymoron to wish to defund the police but also ask for more training.”
The Oklahoma deputy voiced concern about the Memphis Police Department announcing early last year that it was relaxing recruitment requirements, including offering waivers for people who have been convicted on felony charges. The department also slashed the amount of college credit hours needed, Fox13 Memphis reported.
“What I would personally like to see nationwide is education requirements and higher pay. That would allow agencies to be more choosy with applicants. Mandatory crisis intervention training may help as well,” the deputy said.
Kirk Burkhalter, a professor at New York Law School and a former New York City Police Department detective, agreed that higher pay is needed for officers but said that more training won’t necessarily stop incidents of police brutality. Instead, he suggested that change starts from the top down, including how prospective officers are selected and how they are supervised after being hired.
“We’re always looking at the act ... of the individual police officer and discussing how heinous they were and so forth, and we don’t take a deep dive quite often into the administration of police departments. Who is creating the rules? Who is responsible for monitoring?” he said to HuffPost. “From what we can see from the [Memphis bodycam] video, you don’t see any supervisors on the scene.”
A supervisor’s job “is to prevent exactly what we saw occur,” he continued. “Police work can be quite emotional, and it’s the supervisor that’s supposed to be there to rein everyone in.”
Burkhalter said that the officers involved in the Nichols incident likely should not have been hired in the first place, reasoning that the conduct shown in the video “is not something that you can train away.”
“What do you do? Train somebody and say, ‘Hey, by the way, we don’t kill people’?” he said. “That’s just basic humanity.”
Even if improper police conduct is chalked up to a few bad apples, he said it raises some questions. “Who is the person inspecting the bag of apples? Who’s monitoring the picking of those apples?” he said.
Burkhalter — who served 20 years with the NYPD, following in the footsteps of his father — also pointed to a lack of timely medical response and a lack of bystander intervention for things ending the way they did in Memphis.
“It’s rarely just one officer on the scene,” he said of high-profile police killings, including the 2020 murder of George Floyd, which led to the firing and prosecution of four Minneapolis officers. “There are many officers and, in some way shape or form, they’re at least watching the interaction unfold.”
Even if a bystanding officer’s actions don’t rise to the level of criminal offenses, Burkhalter said they should still be held liable within their department for not intervening.
He recommended continuous mental health checks for officers ― not just when they’re first hired ― as well as a pay hike and at least two years of academy training for all new recruits. As for whether this is unaffordable, he suggested that it’s worth the investment and that training resources could be provided by public institutions like universities. Developing a program like this is a personal “pipe dream,” he said, and one that he hopes a smaller jurisdiction might take on.
“It should be a competitive process. We should have people knocking down the door to serve their communities as police officers,” Burkhalter said. “It should be something that requires a rigorous educational background, rigorous training and a rather long onboarding process to ensure that this is the right profession for every person.”
The Memphis Police Association, which represents more than 2,000 commissioned police officers and retirees, said in a statement shortly after the Nichols video’s release that it is “committed to justice.” It did not outright condemn officers’ actions.