MEMPHIS, Tenn. — In a city that is no stranger to struggle and strife, Tyre Nichols’ death has birthed demands for Memphis and its police department to head in a new direction.
Nichols was pulled over, tased, and beaten by Memphis Police officers on January 7, 2023. He died three days later.
Less than a month after, six police officers and three EMTS involved were fired.
Renowned Civil Rights attorney Ben Crump called it “swift justice.”
“No longer can you tell us, we gotta wait six months to a year. No more can you tell us that anymore, because with these Black officers, you all moved it swiftly,” said Crump at a Jan. 27 press conference.
One day earlier, on Jan. 26, five former Memphis Police officers were indicted on charges including second-degree murder, aggravated assault, and aggravated kidnapping.
Two months after Nichols’ death, a total of 13 officers faced discipline.
Multiple agencies on the local, state, and federal levels launched investigations.
Crump continued, “We have to make the point exceedingly clear, we now have the blueprint America, and we won’t accept less going forward in the future.”
But if Memphis is to become the blueprint for how other communities handle cases of deadly force, some already working for change say we have to start from scratch, building from the ground up, before becoming a model for any other city.
After spending more than 30 years with the Memphis Police Department, James Kirkwood retired as a colonel in 2017.
“It was absolutely wonderful that the chief moved swiftly. But what do you do now? What do we do to realize that wait a minute, there’s some work to be done in this department, in changing the culture?” Kirkwood asked.
WREG asked Kirkwood what a blueprint would look like in his eyes.
“Everybody will be a part of creating a crime strategy or a strategic safe community plan, other than individuals who really you know, aren’t hearing the voices of the people,” explained Kirkwood.
Throughout his law enforcement career, Kirkwood, who’s also a pastor, says community outreach and collaboration were critical to success. He’s also the president of Memphis‘ Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board, or CLERB, where he’s pushing for more personnel and power.
This, as a bill moving through the legislature, would ban community oversight review boards and allow cities to create their own police advisory groups.
“When we resist putting in strong civilian oversight to make sure police are accountable for their actions, we are ignoring the cries of the people,” Kirkwood said of the bill.
Amber Sherman led protests following Nichols’ death and continues to challenge local leaders and lawmakers to change laws and policies surrounding policing.
“Real, tangible action to prevent this from happening is us ending the multi-level gang unit, ending the organized crime unit, ending the use of those task forces during these pretextual traffic stops and law enforcement doing them all together,” said Sherman.
While that’s still on the table, the Memphis City Council passed five other ordinances related to oversight, transparency, and traffic stops, including a requirement to only used marked vehicles.
A day after releasing video of Nichols’ stop, MPD scrapped its SCORPION unit. Now, the Department of Justice is probing specialized units.
Sherman continued, “While you’re investigating, end the use of the task force. By keeping them in place, you’re saying … we don’t believe citizens. We don’t respect them enough to actually take their concerns seriously.”
Josh Spickler leads criminal justice reform organization Just City, which has pushed for additional reform like mandated cooperation with CLERB, and an end to so-called “hot spot” policing.
“Our priorities are about sending people with guns into our communities to try to address harm and need that they just simply can’t address, and the result of that is sometimes what we saw on that Tyre Nichols video,” said Spickler.
Seeing fewer such interactions Spickler says requires us to reconsider our needs.
“I think we need to be asking ourselves, what is safety? Let’s talk about what safety really means to people in communities that definitely are experiencing violence and harm frequently,” Spickler said.
How Memphis answers that question, he says, has a lot to do with the city’s top cop and the mayor who hires them. Memphians later this year will have a voice, by way of their vote in how the city develops its own blueprint.
Spickler said, “It’s going to take bold leadership, there’s no doubt about that this is not easy, to lead a community through what needs to be a fundamental transition into something new.”
It would be new for Memphis and possibly the rest of the country.
“We have a precedent that has been set here in Memphis. And we tend to hold this blueprint, for all America, from this day forward,” Crump proclaimed in January.
At Tyre Nichols’ funeral, his mother, RowVaughn Wells said, “I really truly believe my son was sent here on an assignment from God.”
A catalyst for change, leading to the creation of a blueprint for others to build upon.
The Memphis City Council is scheduled to take a final vote on a combined police reform ordinance at its next scheduled meeting on Tuesday, April 11. It was voted on after the council passed the other five ordinances related to reform with supporters saying it was important to have all the efforts combined into one place.
However, some pushing for change have raised concerns that the combined ordinance might roll back some of the reform efforts previously passed due to the way it’s written.
The Shelby County Commission has also taken up several measures related to police reform.
The District Attorney’s office has also announced some changes regarding transparency.
While the Justice Department’s COPS arm launched its investigation into MPD, several lawmakers and reform advocates met with leaders earlier this week, requesting what’s called a pattern or practice investigation into MPD.