Giving Compass' Take:
- In the wake of Tyre Nichols' death, Jamiles Lartey interviews Wilbert L. Cooper about why Black officers are not the answer to police brutality.
- Why are Black officers not enough to change a violent system? What systemic change needs to occur to end brutal killings like that of Nichols?
- Learn about the mental health impacts of police killings on Black Americans.
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Tyre Nichols died on Jan. 10 in Memphis, after five officers beat him during an arrest. Body camera and surveillance footage released Friday night shows officers repeatedly punching, kicking and pepper spraying Nichols, as well as striking him with a baton and shocking him with Tasers. Afterward, as he laid on the ground battered, officers failed to render aid and instead, some smoked cigarettes. Friday night, protesters demonstrated in Memphis and other cities, from New York and Philadelphia to Los Angeles and Seattle.
The case touches on several of the tragic themes that have come up throughout my career: police violence, a city in the midst of reform, nevertheless rocked by police brutality — even the fact of a young Black man calling out for his mother or grandmother during a police beating was grimly familiar. But there was one element that’s drawn attention:
All five of the officers — who were subsequently fired and charged with crimes — were Black, as is the city police chief and a majority of Memphis police officers. This isn’t unprecedented in police violence cases — three of the six officers who were charged and eventually cleared in the 2015 death of Freddie Gray were Black, for example. But cases like this inevitably raise questions about how much the race of police officers affects how they do the job.
For more insights, I reached out to my colleague Wilbert L. Cooper, who comes from a family of Black police officers. Will has been working on a project about Black police officers, and I was hoping that some of his research and reporting would help me understand these questions better. We distilled our chat into the Q&A that follows, adding sources and context where needed.
Jamiles Lartey: Will, why is this an important moment to look at the question of Black police officers?
Wilbert L. Cooper: The race of the officers is clearly at the forefront of everyone’s mind in Memphis right now. Speaking about the officers who face charges for the murder of her son, Tyre Nichols’ mother, RowVaughn Wells, told CNN, “They have brought shame to their own families. They brought shame to the Black community. I just feel sorry for them. I really do.” So, on one side, there’s this feeling that these officers failed to live up to the unique burden put on Black cops, to be a bulwark for their community against the racialized violence associated with law enforcement.
Read the full article about Tyre Nichols' death and police brutality by Jamiles Lartey and Wilbert L. Cooper at The Marshall Project.