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The death of Tyre Nichols must mark a turning point in American police history

If members of our profession continue to deliver indefensible blows such as those delivered in Memphis, the American police profession as we know it may very well find itself on the ropes.


A portrait of Tyre Nichols is displayed at a memorial service for him on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023 in Memphis, Tenn.

AP Photo/Adrian Sainz

“I was aghast!” said noted police trainer Randy Sutton after he watched the arrest of Tyre Nichols. Since I have no words strong enough to describe how I felt as I watched this “arrest” play out on video, I will let my esteemed colleague’s description stand.

Clearly, something went wrong in Memphis, which caused the chief and prosecutor to take immediate action by firing and charging five of the officers involved and releasing video of the incident to the public.

The officers involved in this contact were all hired between 2017 and 2020 and were currently serving as part of the “Scorpion unit,” which is reported to be an “elite” street crimes unit. Since they are an elite unit, I would expect to see a well-trained team response during any arrest they would be required to make. That certainly did not happen in the case of Tyre Nichols.

With that in mind, this is what I didn’t see from this “elite unit” during the initial contact.

During the first contact...

  1. I didn’t see any trained vehicle contact procedure attempted. There was no approach/non-approach, nor high-risk stop tactic employed here. At best one could describe it as what we used to call an adrenalized “bum’s rush.”
  2. I didn’t see verbal directions given in a manner that was understandable, followed by a reasonable length of time for the suspect to comply.
  3. I didn’t see trained techniques for the effective forced removal of a subject from a vehicle.
  4. I didn’t see a team approach to controlling a resistive subject. The officers were working against each other during the first contact. Instead of looking like the focused strike of a scorpion, it looked more like, as one police trainer used to call a physical arrest made by untrained officers, “ants on a cake.”
  5. I didn’t see any trained police technique designed to move a resistive subject to their stomach and effectively control.
  6. I didn’t see anyone verbalizing “TASER! TASER! TASER! before deployment of the TASER.
  7. I didn’t see a trained and focused application of pepper spray. Here officers appeared more affected by the spray than the suspect.

Tyre Nichols was able to break free and flee from the first contact leading to a foot pursuit and eventually a second contact. It was the force used during this second contact that the prosecutors will argue constituted a serious crime.

This is what I didn’t see during the second contact.

During the second contact...

  1. I didn’t see any professional verbalization. Street vernacular was the language of the day.
  2. I didn’t see the effective application of police control tactics.
  3. I didn’t see any officer verbally intervening to stop the punches, kicks, or baton strikes.
  4. I didn’t see any officer physically intervening to stop the punches, kicks, or baton strikes.
  5. I didn’t see a clear-cut attempt to verbally or physically assess Nichols’ injuries.
  6. I didn’t see empathy or compassion.
  7. I didn’t see evidence that an elite unit was in operation.

Overall observations

It appeared that the officers did not possess the shared skills to control a resistive subject and look and sound professional while doing it. This led them to make ineffectual attempts at controlling the subject. One of the officers pepper-sprayed not only Nichols but his fellow officers, after which Nichols escaped and ran.

This ineffectual first attempt to arrest Nichols led to the second contact. It was here that the inability to control Nichols created a situation where the frustrated officers failed to control themselves. Nichols was kicked, punched, pepper sprayed and struck with a baton multiple times. It will be argued by the prosecutor that these impacts were not only unjustifiable but criminal.

It will also be argued that other officers present failed to intervene.

How to prevent this from happening where you live

It is imperative that this moment in history mark the time when American law enforcement training in effective control options and the lawful use of force nationwide becomes a high priority. The training of police officers to be able to effectively and defensibly control resistive subjects under the watchful eye of the public is not only a personal security issue for every officer, but is now quite literally a national security issue.

Officers also need to be simultaneously prepared, during training, not only to learn how to control subjects but also to learn how to control their own emotions during these high-stress encounters. It has to be second nature for officers to not just know how to use force, but when to use force defensibly.

Drills need to be incorporated into training wherever they do not yet exist to teach officers to verbally and physically intervene when a fellow officer is clearly out of control.


American law enforcement needs the support of the public in order to function. In this current environment, every indefensible blow struck by an officer around the country against a subject is a blow struck against our profession. If members of our profession continue to deliver indefensible blows such as those delivered in Memphis, the American police profession as we know it may very well find itself on the ropes.

NEXT: Duty to intercede: Conceptual, cultural and legal aspects

Lt. Dan Marcou is an internationally-recognized police trainer who was a highly-decorated police officer with 33 years of full-time law enforcement experience. Marcou’s awards include Police Officer of the Year, SWAT Officer of the Year, Humanitarian of the Year and Domestic Violence Officer of the Year. Additional awards Lt. Marcou received were 15 departmental citations (his department’s highest award), two Chief’s Superior Achievement Awards and the Distinguished Service Medal for his response to an active shooter.

Upon retiring, Lt. Marcou began writing. He is the co-author of “Street Survival II, Tactics for Deadly Encounters.” His novels, “The Calling, the Making of a Veteran Cop,” “SWAT, Blue Knights in Black Armor,” “Nobody’s Heroes” and “Destiny of Heroes,” as well as two non-fiction books, “Law Dogs, Great Cops in American History” and “If I Knew Then: Life Lessons From Cops on the Street.” All of Lt. Marcou’s books are all available at Amazon. Dan is a member of the Police1 Editorial Advisory Board.