Uncomfortable questions law enforcement must answer after the death of Tyre Nichols
To demean policing rather than precisely identify its failures and limitations serves only to undermine progress
By Jonathan M. Wender, Ph.D.
Tyre Nichols’ brutal death last month led to the usual flurry of press releases and statements from law enforcement leaders and elected officials condemning the actions of the former Memphis officers who dishonored our noble profession.
Agency leaders nationwide rushed to remind the public that the vast majority of police officers act with integrity, while internally, they issued roll-call messages and department-wide emails reminding officers of the obvious fact that what happened in Memphis is inexcusable.
But to be blunt, press releases and all-hands emails from the chief or sheriff are little more than political theater and have no meaningful impact on the deeper causes of police misconduct. We will surely see another high-profile case of excessive use of force in the months ahead, and it will be attributable to the same root causes that further investigation in Memphis will likely reveal contributed to the death of Tyre Nichols.
These deeper causes are well-known: toxic culture, poor leadership and supervision, negligent hiring, failures of training, evaluation, oversight, accountability, and so on. Addressing these and other causes takes courage, persistence, leadership, teamwork and police-community trust. It is long past time to get off what I call the police reform “merry-go-round” and do some tough reflecting.
With that in mind, I want to challenge police professionals of all ranks to move beyond superficial gestures and openly address the following uncomfortable questions:
- Why do nearly all academy classes have manifestly unqualified students who make instructors and fellow recruits all wonder, "Why did this person get hired?”
- Does everyone in your agency know who the disgraceful, abusive, dishonorable officers are?
- Is anyone really surprised when these few officers act illegally, brutally and unethically?
- If no one is surprised, how and why is your agency failing to hold accountable and fire those officers who pose a clear and present danger to the community and their colleagues?
- Does leadership blame the union and vice versa for failing to rid your agency of dishonorable people?
- Do the worst officers in your agency still pass their mandatory “training?”
- Does your agency relentlessly train for mission success, or do you engage in crisis-driven box-checking and political theater?
- Does your training program change the behavior of that same group of shameful officers who sit staring at their phones, muttering under their breath, and refusing to participate? Why not?
Next, I have a few questions for activists, elected officials and hand-wringing social, political and academic elites who condemn policing from the sidelines:
- How can society reform a profession that so many of its elites view with growing contempt?
- How is widespread contempt for policing increasing the likelihood that your local agency is driving away your best and brightest officers and replacing them with unqualified people?
- What would it cost to provide your community’s officers with sustainable training, education, and safety and wellness resources likely to measurably improve their performance?
- Would you rather have your local police agency reduce its size and hire fewer people who meet realistic, stringent qualifications, or hire more people who are unqualified and more likely to make catastrophic decisions resulting in injury or death?
- How much can policy changes and politically driven “training” improve the average performance of law enforcement personnel who are unqualified?
I want to elaborate on this last question. Everyone likes feel-good Hollywood stories about the scrappy team of undisciplined misfits who come from behind, get their act together, and win the big victory against long odds. But real life is far messier, particularly when it comes to high-stakes professions like medicine, aviation, firefighting, the military and policing.
We must attract the brightest and the best
It is a simple truth in any organization that most people are average. Of course, what counts as “average” depends on the organization. For example, average skills on a major league sports team are vastly different from average skills on an amateur team. Generally speaking, when society holds an organization in high regard, it can attract and select the best, most capable candidates. Conversely, when society views an organization with contempt, it risks being forced to shrink its ranks, lower its standards, or perhaps close its doors. Of course, the organization can also try to improve its reputation in the public eye; however, doing so requires reciprocal external changes outside its control. To demean policing rather than precisely identify its failures and limitations serves only to undermine its progress.
Unfortunately, the more contempt for policing grows, the harder it becomes to attract and retain the best and brightest people. The risks, pressures and diminishing reputation of policing are demoralizing and driving away our best veteran officers by the thousands and discouraging countless new officers. I personally know numerous visionary reform-minded officers and leaders with vast experience and advanced degrees who have left the profession. And who will replace them? One of my colleagues who works at a large agency’s academy estimates that nearly half of the recruits in recent classes are substandard and unqualified. Today’s substandard, unqualified recruits are tomorrow’s substandard FTOs, supervisors and command staff. Sadly, the results of this trend are entirely predictable and increase the odds that we will see more brutal, illegal, unethical conduct at the hands of officers who never should have been hired in the first place, let alone allowed to complete their probation.
Police agencies must find the courage to look within, and stop the willful practice of hiring, retaining and promoting people who are demonstrably unqualified to serve. Leadership and unions must find lawful and ethical ways to collaboratively rid their agencies of the people we all know are a disgrace to the badge. Police unions would do well to understand that due process and the presumption of innocence do not provide an excuse for tolerating and protecting chronic misconduct that harms the entire profession and undermines public trust. For their part, agency leaders must go to elected officials and communities with honest facts about the predictable effects of lower hiring standards.
American policing must demonstrate especially to our critics that we can be trusted to protect our own integrity. And we must also work deliberately contact by contact to build trust within our agencies, and between our agencies and communities. Rather than be held hostage to the shameful actions of a small group of officers, we must use ethically driven science, technology and best practices to identify and systematically strengthen the patterns of success that hold the promise of real reform.
American policing has been continually improving for decades. We owe it especially to our most marginalized, highest-crime communities not to reverse this trend.
About the author
Jonathan M. Wender, PhD., is the president and co-founder of Polis Solutions, Inc. He is a 20-year police veteran, interdisciplinary social scientist, and internationally recognized expert on police reform, police decision-making, and the use of force. Jonathan’s area of expertise is face-to-face interactions in situations where risk is high and trust is low. He is lead developer of Polis’ T3 – Tact, Tactics, and Trust and ADAPT training systems. Jonathan is currently overseeing the development of Polis’ new TrustStat™ technology to automate the analysis of body-worn camera video in order to improve officer and public trust and safety.