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Policing experts condemn Memphis officers after the release of Tyre Nichols footage

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Once again, the family of a Black man killed by police is in mourning. And Americans must grapple with how he came to die after being stopped for alleged reckless driving. Four videos were released last night in Memphis showing the detention, the pursuit and the beating of Tyre Nichols by five police officers, also Black, on January 7. Mr. Nichols later died of his injuries. He was 29 years old. NPR's Martin Kaste covers law enforcement and joins us. And Martin, we're going to be talking about those videos, and they are distressing, and the material is extremely sensitive. We're going to include a short excerpt of violent audio from them. What do these videos show?

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Well, Scott, the scene is it's nighttime. It's about 8:30 p.m., and the police have pulled Nichols' car over in the middle of the street. And they're acting incredibly aggressive. They drag him out of his car out on to the asphalt. Their guns are drawn. They're cursing, even as he sounds like he's trying to cooperate or says so. This audio gives you a sense of their tone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: Man, if you don't lay down...

TYRE NICHOLS: I am on the ground.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #2: What the hell are you trying to...

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: On your stomach.

NICHOLS: I am. Please. Stop, I'm not doing any...

KASTE: And so Nichols breaks free during a scuffle. They try to use a taser on him. He manages to run away. And then less than 10 minutes later, we see him again, about half a mile away in his mother's neighborhood. And he's on the ground again. And here we see police hitting him, kicking him in the head, using a collapsible baton on him. And this goes on for several minutes.

SIMON: It's repulsive. Policing experts have to look at it and have to look at it closely. What what do they see? What do they tell you?

KASTE: Well, I mean, I'm hearing universal condemnation, right? You know, from the national office of the Fraternal Order of Police, the union on down. Police are calling this bad policing, and they say it's criminal. I talked to Ian Adams. He was a cop for 12 years. He's now a researcher in criminal justice at the University of South Carolina.

IAN ADAMS: All the actions here, from the very first interaction, really, run counter to how we expect officers, how we train officers to behave. It's hard to find reason in what seems incredibly unreasonable.

SIMON: Martin, is there any indication why these, you know, five officers and perhaps more, ultimately, acted so aggressively?

KASTE: Well, we don't anything conclusive. This investigation's just starting. But there's a lot of talk about the fact that these officers were part of a specialized unit. It went by the acronym SCORPION. It does hot spot policing, sort of extra focus on areas with higher crime. And I talked to Sue Rahr about this. She's a retired sheriff in Washington state who's worked a lot in police reform and training. And she worries that these units can develop sort of a culture that sees their work as a kind of war.

SUE RAHR: When you get into that frame of mind, you start seeing everybody in the neighborhood as the enemy. Even in a high-crime neighborhood, 95% of the people are not committing crimes. But it's too easy to let that lens cover your view.

KASTE: I should add here that when Rahr looked at that video, to her, it did not look like any kind of a planned operation. To her, she thought it just looked like they were punishing him with what she called a beatdown.

SIMON: Martin, after all of the protests, all of the vows to have better, more sensible policing, how could officers still do this in 2023?

KASTE: Well, the first thing a lot of cops will say right away is that most cops won't do this kind of thing. But critics of American policing say that's a line we've been hearing for years about a few bad apples. And those critics say the whole system somehow leads toward abuse, violence and racism, even if in this case, we're talking about five Black officers who've been charged with committing the violence.

SIMON: Anything else in the videos that policing experts talk about?

KASTE: Yes, one thing came up in every conversation. Here's Ian Adams again, talking about the thing that kept going through his mind as he watched the video.

ADAMS: These officers are so young and inexperienced. I think the most experienced one is five years, which is still considered very, very young in the profession, especially for a specialized squad.

KASTE: Police chiefs have always said that younger officers just aren't as good at controlling their emotions, knowing when to rein it in. Cops learn that in training, but also over time. And guess what? American police departments right now are trending younger because they lost a huge wave of older, more experienced cops to resignations in the summer of 2020. So this level of inexperience may not be that unusual.

SIMON: NPR's Martin Kaste. Thanks so much.

KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.