When the officers are Black: Tyre Nichols' death raises tough questions about race in policing

In the long sequence of high-profile deaths of Black men at the hands of police, the death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis shared many of the same hallmarks: a traffic stop that turns violent, an outraged community and a crucial release of video footage.

But the case was unique in another way. All five police officers charged with murdering Nichols are Black.

How the officers' race will influence protesters in the streets – and any future jury in the courtroom – remains to be seen. But experts, activists and attorneys told USA TODAY that the race of the officers involved is far less important than the race of the victim. They say a "historically biased culture of policing" puts Black people at risk regardless of an officer's race.

"Black people and Black police officers can carry with them some of the same understandings or views of Black people as white police officers might," said Ralph Richard Banks, law professor and faculty director of the Stanford Center for Racial Justice. "There’s nothing that immunizes them.”

What the video shows: Memphis police violently beating Tyre Nichols in the traffic stop that led to his death

'Appalling' footage from arrest': Tyre Nichols' family, lawyer Ben Crump speak after seeing video

Nichols' death exploded into national headlines even before Friday night, when Memphis police released the graphic video footage from Jan. 7. It shows officers trying to arrest Nichols at a red light and again after a pursuit to a nearby neighborhood. Officers attack Nichols with pepper spray, a Taser, a baton and punches and kicks. Nichols cries out for his mother as officers strike him. They then prop him up as he repeatedly slumps to the ground.

Nichols was hospitalized in critical condition and died three days later. Preliminary findings of an independent autopsy showed Nichols "suffered extensive bleeding caused by a severe beating," Nichols' family's attorneys, Ben Crump and Antonio Romanucci, said in a joint statement.

All five officers were fired last week and have been charged with second-degree murder and other crimes in connection to Nichols' death.

'Race of the suspect matters most': Tyre Nichols police officers are Black

Black police officers have been accused of brutalizing and killing Black people before. Three of the six Baltimore police officers charged in the 2015 arrest and death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray were Black.

Gray’s death touched off days of rioting and looting and led to investigations by the U.S. Justice Department. All six officers in that case were acquitted or had their charges dropped.

“If you go into the neighborhoods of Baltimore right now and ask whether the race of corrupt or untoward police officers matter, they would say absolutely not,” said Malcom Ruff, a trial lawyer with Murphy, Falcon & Murphy, the Baltimore law firm that represented Gray’s family in civil lawsuits.

"Absolutely it is the race of the suspect that matters most," he said. "It's the historically biased culture of policing that killed (Nichols)."

One noticeable difference, Ruff said, was the swiftness with which the five officers were fired and charged with serious crimes, while white officers in previous police-involved shootings may have been suspended with pay pending investigations.

"It seems there is always a swift action when the officers are Black," he said. "That’s very telling."

Memphis police chief downplayed role of race 

Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn "C.J." Davis called the officers' actions "incomprehensible" and "unconscionable" but downplayed the role race played in the incident, given that all five officers were Black.

Tadarrius Bean, left, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills, Jr. and Justin Smith have been charged with second-degree murder and other crimes in the arrest and death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tenn.
Tadarrius Bean, left, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills, Jr. and Justin Smith have been charged with second-degree murder and other crimes in the arrest and death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tenn.

"It takes off the table that issues and problems in law enforcement (are) about race," she told CNN. "It is not. It is about human dignity and integrity, accountability and the duty to protect our community. And as this video will show you, it doesn’t matter who is wearing the uniform, that we all have that same responsibility. So it takes race off the table. But it does indicate to me that bias might be a factor also in the manner in which we engage the community."

Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, an online racial justice organization, called Davis' remarks "deeply unfortunate." He said Nichols' death points to systemic racial biases inherent in policing networks that need to be rooted out, regardless of the color of the officers.

“What this illustrates is that we do have a deep problem that is beyond black and white, and it’s about blue,” he said. “It’s about the nature and the infrastructures of policing in this country that every single day send a message."

More Black officers alone can't fix systemic racism, activists say

Even as police departments have diversified and added more Black officers, they've failed to put in place and enforce structural changes needed to erase racist policing, Robinson said.

One of the questions that should be thoroughly investigated is the specialized unit to which the Memphis police officers belonged – the so-called SCORPION team – which may have been acting with little oversight and targeting communities of color, said Hans Menos of the California-based Center for Policing Equity. That unit has been deactivated, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said Friday.

"We don’t need to know the race of the officers to know we have five officers with no supervision in a community and asked to make cases," he said. "This is what's slowly coming out here."

Joanna Schwartz, professor at UCLA School of Law and author of the upcoming book “Shielded: How the Police Became Untouchable,” said saying the involvement of Black officers takes race out of the equation overlooks the disparities in who is a victim of police brutality.

"Study after study has found Black people are more likely to be stopped, more likely to be searched, more likely to be assaulted, more likely to be killed. I don’t think you can say this is not about race because the officers are Black,” she said. “There is nothing in our country that is divorced from issues of race. Neither is this.”

Follow Jervis and Guynn on Twitter: @MrRJervis, @jguynn.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tyre Nichols is Black, so are officers: What his death says about race