MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The president of the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission says the death of Tyre Nichols after a brutal arrest by Memphis Police showed the results of a “hiring failure” by the police department.
Bill Gibbons said the Memphis Police Department is sometimes hiring people who don’t have the character and values needed to be officers.
Over the past several years, Memphis’ police department and mayor have pushed to add hundreds of officers to the department’s ranks, offering signing bonuses and boosting salaries, and lowering college requirements to attract recruits.
Officials have said the city needs to get the MPD complement up to 2,500 officers. The actual number has fluctuated around 2,000.
Gibbons praised the Memphis Police Department and the mayor for the action they’d taken in response to Nichols’ death, firing several officers and disbanding the special unit they served on.
But in an interview with WREG on Tuesday, he disagreed with some in the community who said the problem was a lack of adequate training or policies for officers.
“I don’t think it’s really a failure to adequately train officers. We have good training in the police department. And I don’t think it’s primarily the lack of policies. We have good policies for the police. A lot of the reforms that people are advocating have been adopted by the police department in the last couple years,” Gibbons said.
“I think this is a hiring failure. This is an example of individuals being hired to be police officers who never should’ve been police officers. They don’t have the values, the character, necessary to be in that kind of position. And I think we need to be careful in terms of hiring the right kind of people to be police officers, not people who just want the power of the gun and badge, but people who want to be public servants.”
Nichols was pepper-sprayed, beaten and kicked after running from a traffic stop in Hickory Hill toward his parent’s home the night of Jan. 7. He died three days later, severely injured in a hospital.
Five former Memphis Police officers have been fired and charged with second-degree murder. Two more have been relieved of duty, along with two sheriff’s deputies. Three fire department employees who responded have also been fired.
Gibbons, who is a former district attorney general who works closely with police, said the vast majority of Memphis officers are disturbed and disappointed at the behavior of officers revealed in the Tyre Nichols videos.
“Frankly, they are embarrassed by what their fellow officers did,” Gibbons said.
State Rep. Justin J. Pearson, who also appeared on WREG Tuesday, agreed that hiring may be part of the problem, and said he was working on legislation to prevent officers with criminal records from transferring to another department.
However, he believes the bigger problem is the training, policies and culture of the city’s police force.
“The reality is, we need better policies and accountability and enforcement,” Pearson said. “If our training was so good, Tyre would be alive. We have a system rooted in white supremacy, rooted in the division of anti-Black racism.”
The Memphis Police Department is 58% Black, The New York Times has reported. All five of the officers charged in the Tyre Nichols incident are Black, as was Nichols. One white officer has been relieved of duty, but not charged.
There was some good news to be shared on the law enforcement front in Memphis. Major violent crime — murders, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults — dropped 5.1% in Memphis in 2022 vs. the year before.
“We’re still way above where we were pre-pandemic. But at least it’s a decline, not an increase,” Gibbons said.