(CNN) — Since the night Tyre Nichols was kicked, pepper-sprayed, punched and struck with a baton by Memphis police officers, six cops have been fired and five of them charged with murder. Seven others face internal disciplinary charges.
Nichols died three days after the January 7 traffic stop and subsequent fatal encounter captured on video and principally involving five officers with two to six years on the job.
The death of the 29-year-old Black man comes at a critical juncture in American law enforcement, as departments across the country — including the Memphis PD — struggle to recruit qualified officers and fill shifts, lure candidates with signing bonuses worth thousands of dollars, and at times curtail standards and training in a desperate bid to strengthen patrols amid rising gun violence, according to law enforcement experts.
“That is a recipe for disaster,” said Kenneth Corey, a retired NYPD chief who once ran the training division. “We’ve seen it happen before. You couldn’t fill seats. You lowered standards. And now you’ve got scandal and use of force. And when you look at the individuals involved you say, we never would have hired this guy once upon a time.”
Officers were part of specialized unit now disbanded
In the weeks since authorities released video of Nichols’ brutal beating, little information has come out about the recruitment and training of the five former officers facing murder charges — Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Justin Smith, Emmitt Martin III and Desmond Mills Jr.
The five men were part of a now disbanded specialized street crime unit formed just over a year ago as part of the city’s strategy to combat rising violence. The SCORPION unit focused on homicides, robberies, assaults and other felonies.
Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said Nichols’ killing raises questions about “how those officers were trained and supervised and selected.”
“Over time you always want to look at the backgrounds of those officers — that will be important. The hiring process — that will be important,” he said. “In this case we don’t know enough yet.”
Bean, 24, was commissioned as an officer in January 2021, personnel records show. His attorney has not responded to CNN’s requests for comment.
Haley, 30, was commissioned as an officer in January 2021, the records show. He is a former correctional officer. His attorney has not respond to requests for comment.
Martin, 30, joined the department in 2018, according to the records. He will plead not guilty, according to his attorney, William Massey, who said: “No one out there that night intended for Tyre Nichols to die.”
Mills, 32, a former jailer in Mississippi and Tennessee, joined the department as a recruit in March 2017, the records show. He, too, plans to plea not guilty, said Blake Ballin, his attorney, who described Mills as “devastated” and “remorseful.”
Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis told CNN last month that Nichols’ death was indicative of “a gap somewhere” in the specialized street crime unit.
“We train and we retrain these officers, just like specialized units around the country,” she said. “These officers working in specialized units, you always need to make sure that the supervision is there and present.”
On January 28, one day after the release of the video, Memphis PD announced that it had permanently disbanded the unit.
Davis said the department was unaware of any evidence the unit had previously engaged in misconduct but added that an investigation is ongoing.
The five former Memphis officers charged in Nichols’ death also are accused of assaulting another young Black man just three days before the fatal police encounter, according to a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday.
The suit accuses the city of failing to prevent or address an alleged pattern of policing abuses by the SCORPION unit, which it claims operated like a “gang of vigilantes” without adequate training or supervision. Police declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing ongoing litigation.
The Shelby County District Attorney’s office in Memphis said it will review all cases involving the five officers charged with Nichols’ death.
Davis, speaking at a Memphis city council meeting Tuesday, said training was not an issue with the unit. Instead, she said, “egos” and a “wolf pack mentality” contributed to the killing.
“Culture is not something that changes overnight. You know, there is a saying in law enforcement that ‘culture eats policy for lunch.’ We don’t want to just have good policies because policies can be navigated around,” she said. “We want to ensure that we have the right people in place to ensure our culture is evolving.”
Bonuses offered and hiring standards loosened
Nichols’ death comes as many police departments in the US have been reeling from an exodus of officers due to resignations and retirements and scrambling to attract new recruits. The staffing crisis has been exacerbated by high-profile cases such as the 2020 murder of George Floyd that have put policing under scrutiny and made it a frequent target of protests and moves to decrease funding.
“The pandemic impacted recruiting and then George Floyd’s murder really was a moment in time that made prospective police applicants think twice — Is this a job for me?” Wexler said.
“And now, unfortunately, with the Tyre Nichols killing you simply compounded what was already arguably a challenging environment to hire a police officer.”
Wexler’s group, in a 2021 survey, found that retirements had risen 45% that year since 2019. Resignations had jumped 18% in that two-year period.
The number of officers on the Memphis Police Department dropped by more than 22% since 2011 — from 2,449 in September 2011 to a low of 1,895 officers last December, according to the Memphis Data Hub website.
The department was budgeted for 2,300 officers last year, CNN affiliate WMC reported. In 2015, nearly 200 Memphis police officers resigned over changes to pension and benefit plans, according to WMC.
“It had gotten to the point that we were having sergeants as acting lieutenants,” said Alvin Davis, a former Memphis police lieutenant and recruiter who retired last year. “Hundreds of people did it over a period of time because we didn’t have enough supervisors. So many people were running out the door.”
Like other departments around the country, the Memphis PD in 2021 began offering $15,000 signing bonuses and $10,000 in relocation assistance. Additionally, requirements on college credits, military experience and employment history have been loosened, WMC reported.
“Departments around the country … are offering between $25,000 and $30,000 signing bonuses,” Wexler said. “You’ve got a national shortage of applicants which has forced police departments to do unprecedented things like offering signing bonuses and, in some cases, modifying the standards for hiring.”
Greg Umbach, associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said there is a direct correlation between higher standards for new recruits and lower incidents of bad behavior.
“We know from decades of research that the number of cops meeting higher qualifications, most notably a college degree, matters far more than anything else, for the number of civilian complaints a department gets,” Umbach said.
And if the pipeline of good officers is low, Umbach said, then so is the quality of supervision — a reality that has plagued the Memphis Police Department and other agencies nationwide.
“Any police sergeant watching that video, their first thought is, ‘My God, where was the supervision and why did they think this was okay,'” Umbach said.
‘It’s not that kind of job anymore’
Davis, the former lieutenant and recruiter, asked a similar question about supervision.
“If you pepper-spray someone or you tase someone, you’re supposed to call a supervisor,” said Davis, who spent 22 years on the job. “That’s just policy. Why they didn’t, I can’t say.”
But, Davis said, the behavior of the former officers who beat Nichols did not entirely surprise him — given the curtailed training and standards, shortage of skilled supervisors and growing number of officers lured by monetary incentives and without the requisite experience being deployed on the city’s streets.
“The standards kept dropping and dropping to bring people in,” said Davis, who was in charge of recruiting. “And then they start throwing money out to lure people in and this is what you got.”
He added, “Just about everybody who came, the first thing they asked us was about was the money. How long did they have to stay on the job? Do I have to do a year? Two years? Nobody is trying to make a career out of it. It was the money.”
The Memphis PD did not immediately respond to a request for comment on training, recruitment and staffing issues.
“It’s not the job that it used to be, when you felt like you’re the ‘best in blue’ and you have your head up because you really feel like you accomplished something,” said Davis, referring to the Memphis Police Department’s longtime “Join the best in blue” recruitment campaign. “It’s not that kind of job anymore.”
‘Lessons of history’ out of Miami and DC
It’s too early to tell exactly what factors contributed to the behavior of the former officers who beat Nichols to death on January 7, law enforcement experts said.
Wexler and others pointed to previous policing scandals that were preceded by periods of hiring under lax standards and curtailed training.
In the late 1980s, nearly 10% of the officers in the Miami Police Department were suspended or fired after a corruption scandal involving rogue officers who became known as the “River Cops.” Nearly 20 former officers were convicted on various state and federal charges, including using their police powers as a racketeering enterprise to commit murder.
In 1990, an investigation into the hiring and training of police officers in Washington, DC by the General Accounting Office found that a hiring rush during the previous decade — prompted by a wave of drug and gun violence — led to cutting corners on recruiting, background checks and training.
Eight years later, another report by the GOA, the investigative arm of Congress, examined drug-related police corruption and said “rapid recruitment initiatives” coupled with loosening education requirements and inadequate training and supervision “might have permitted the hiring of recruits who might not otherwise have been hired.”
“These are all lessons of history,” said Corey, the former NYPD chief. “You have to make the profession attractive to the type of people you want to recruit. It’s not that people have lost interest in policing. They just don’t see it as a viable occupation.”
He added, “What we ask of our cops is that they think like lawyers, speak like psychologists, and perform like athletes but we pay them as common laborers. A starting officer in New York City makes $42,000 a year, which means about $20 dollars an hour. It also means that at McDonald’s they could be making $15 dollars an hour with none of the stress, trauma or risk.”
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