Tyre Nichols case shows officers still fail to intervene

When five Memphis Police officers attacked Tire Nichols with their feet, fists and a baton, others milled around the scene, even as the 29-year-old cried out in pain and then slumped limply against the side of a car.

Just like the attack on George Floyd in Minneapolis almost three years ago, a simple procedure could have saved a life. Instead, Nichols is dead and the five officers face charges of second-degree murder and other crimes.

More disciplinary action could follow after harrowing video of Nichols’ treatment was released. The Memphis Police Department fired two other officers from duty Monday and said the department is still investigating what happened. The Memphis Fire Department also fired three emergency responders who arrived at the scene for failing to assess Nichol’s condition.

The Memphis and Minneapolis Police Departments are among the many US law enforcement agencies with “first hand” policies. The Memphis Protocol is clear: “Any member who directly observes another member engaging in dangerous or criminal conduct or abuse of a subject must take reasonable steps to intervene.”

It’s not just politics, it’s the law. The three Minneapolis officers who failed to step in and prevented former officer Derek Chauvin from kneeling on Floyd’s neck when the black man said he couldn’t breathe were all convicted of federal civil rights violations.

Experts agree that failure by officials to stop colleagues from bad acts creates peer pressure and, in some cases, fear of retaliation.

“They’re afraid of being ostracized,” said George Kirkham, a professor emeritus of criminology at Florida State University and a former police officer. “You have to be able to rely on these guys. It’s the thin blue line. If you get out of there and you’re stuck in a traffic jam, you’ll have no one to help you except other cops.”

Nichols was stopped at a traffic stop on the night of January 7th. Body camera video shows he was beaten as officers shouted obscenities, although Nichols appeared confused as to what he had done wrong. Amid the chaos, he ran and was eventually caught at another intersection not far from his mother’s house.

Surveillance camera images of the scene show two officers pinning Nichols to the ground while a third appears to kick him in the head. Later, another officer repeatedly hits Nichols with a baton while another officer holds him down.

Cops pull Nichols to his feet even though he can barely stand. An officer punches him in the face and Nichols stumbles, still held by two officers. After more hits, he collapses. But the attack continues.

As it ends, Nichols slumps against a car. It would take more than 20 minutes for medical assistance to be rendered, although three members of the fire brigade with medical equipment arrived at the scene within 10 minutes. Those workers, two medics and a lieutenant who were with them, were fired late Monday.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank, said the duty to intervene in politics became common after officers attacked and seriously injured Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1992.

“But having a policy and overcoming what many would call a culture of policing are two different things,” Wexler said. “It is not enough to just have a policy. You have to practice. You need to talk about it.”

In some cases, officials’ concerns about retaliation for the intervention have been realised.

In Buffalo, New York, officer Cariol Horne was a year away from receiving her pension when she faced charges after she pulled the arm from a domestic violence suspect’s neck in 2006. She was fired. In 2021, a state Supreme Court judge reinstated her pension and overturned her dismissal.

Last year in Sunrise, Fla., Sgt. Christopher Pullease was criminally charged after a videotaped incident in which an unidentified female officer pulled Pullease by the belt from a handcuffed suspect after Pullease pointed pepper spray at him. Pullease responded by putting a hand to his colleague’s throat and pushing her away, video showed.

Experts were also baffled that no police department supervisors were present during the Memphis incident. Had it been so, they said, the outcome might have been different.

“I was a supervisor for a long time, and your unannounced appearance at a crime scene keeps people from doing stupid things for lack of a better adjective,” said former New York City Police Sergeant. Joseph Giacalone, who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

Memphis Police Director Cerelyn “CJ” Davis said the police had a shortage of supervisors and called the lack of a supervisor in the incident “a major concern.” Davis on Saturday disbanded the city’s so-called Scorpion Unit, whose officers were involved in the beating.

University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist David Klinger said decisions about whether to intervene in the actions of a fellow police officer are not always decisive and dry. He said one officer could, for example, see a gun that is blocked from another’s view and intervening at the wrong time could endanger the lives of officers at the scene.

“The training has to describe exactly what kind of circumstances would justify an intervention,” said Klinger.

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission.

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