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Tyre Nichols wasn't murdered because of "affirmative action"
Instead of defending an indefensible murder, right-wing pundits have latched on to a narrative that's somehow even more appalling
An ugly narrative about Tyre Nichols is taking hold on the right.
Here Tucker Carlson, who hosts the most-watched cable news program in the country, lays it out:
The race riots of 2020 were never about George Floyd, obviously. That's why there are no statues of him in American cities. They were about changing the country forever. The first step, of course, was defunding police departments across the country and forcing them to lower their standards to attract unqualified applicants: hiring officers based on skin color, rather than integrity or skill or self control, all in the name of equity.
Does that result in better policing? Well what happened in Memphis a few weeks ago is one indicator. At least two of the five officers that apparently beat Tyre Nichols to death were hired under lax diversity-driven standards. They were affirmative action hires.
These claims have been all over Twitter and the right-wing internet for the last several days. It’s been driven largely by a New York Post article, a LinkedIn post by an obscure police officer in Oklahoma, and a tweet by the former president’s large adult son #1.
Before we get to the affirmative action stuff, let’s quickly dispense with the de-funding nonsense: Memphis did not de-fund its police department. Since the George Floyd protests city has increased funding for policing, and given its officers raises. The city now spends nearly 40 percent of its budget on policing, which puts it among the most police-friendly budgets in the country for a city its size. Police funding is not an issue in Memphis.
On to the ugly stuff. There are two main contentions, here. The first is that the officers who killed Tyre Nichols were only hired because they’re black — or more specifically, because the city lowered its hiring standards in an effort to attract more minority police officers. The second contention is that Memphis police chief C.J. Davis was unqualified for that job, and was only hired because she’s a black woman.
Let’s look at the first argument. The two most common sources for it are the aforementioned New York Post article and the LinkedIn post. Here’s the gist of the Post piece, which ran under the headline, “Memphis cops charged in Tyre Nichols murder hired after PD relaxed job requirements.”
At least two out of of five Memphis police officers charged with murder in the fatal beatdown of Tyre Nichols joined the force after the department relaxed its hiring requirements.
Tadarrius Bean and Demetrius Haley both joined the Memphis Police Department in Aug. 2020, NBC News reported, more than two years after the department dramatically loosened the education qualifications to become an officer.
Recruits no longer needed an associate’s degree or 54 college credit hours to join the force, and could get by with five years of work experience, Action 5 reported.
Loosening the required qualifications however means that the department is ultimately getting “less desirable” job candidates, Mike Alcazar, an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a retired NYPD detective, told The Post.
“They’re desperate. They want police officers,” Alcazar said. “They’re going through it, they check off some boxes, saying, ‘Ok, they’re good enough, get them on.”
Last year, the department lowered its standards again for new recruits, nixing the timed physical ability test and cutting college education requirements from 54 credit hours to just 24.
And here’s the LinkedIn post, from an Oklahoma police officer named Karan Parmar:
As you can see, Parmar identifies himself as a “police chief,” as do a number of the right-wing tweets and articles that cite him.
I found it odd that Parmar calls himself a police chief, but doesn’t actually name the town where he’s chief. So I looked it up. The town is Garber, Oklahoma. It has a population of about 800. And while Parmar may be the department’s “chief,” he also appears to be its only full-time employee:
Take all of that for what it’s worth.
Let’s move to the actual substance of these claims. The NY Post article says that two of the five officers charged for Nichols’ death were hired after the lower standards were implemented. So not all five. Just two of the five.
But importantly, article only says these two officers joined the force after the change in standards. It does not say that they wouldn’t have been been hired under the old standards, or that they were only hired because of the new standards. It seems safe to say that the paper’s editors knew that this is the conclusion its readers would draw. But it’s telling that the article refrains from going quite that far.
So would they have been hired under the old standards? It sure seems like it.
We can start with Tadarrius Bean. He’s 24 years old. Bean earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Mississippi. So he undoubtedly met the department’s old minimum requirement for college credits. Bean’s previous employment experience includes a job in fast food, followed by a job with AT&T, and then an internship with the Memphis police department. All of which makes him more than qualified for an entry level position at a mid-sized police department.
Let’s look next at Demetrius Haley. Prior to joining the Memphis PD, Haley was a corrections officer at the Shelby County Division of Corrections. That alone is enough experience to get you hired for an entry-level position at most police departments. It also means that Haley met the minimum requirements to be hired by the Shelby County Division of Corrections.
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The one catch with Haley is that in 2016 he was accused of beating a prisoner. The lawsuit was dismissed because the prisoner failed to comply with some procedural requirements. It isn’t clear if Haley was disciplined.
A spokesman from the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund recently told the conservative publication The Daily Signal, because of that allegation against Haley, “[i]n normal times, he probably wouldn’t have been offered the job as a police officer.”
This is nonsense. Police officers with long, proven records of abuse and misconduct have been regularly getting hired for decades, including those who have been fired from one or more police agencies. There’s just zero reason to think a single allegation from a pro se lawsuit that never made it to court would have prevented Haley from getting hired at a typical police department.
The other three officers charged with Nichols’ death were all hired before the relaxed standards were implemented, which pretty much eliminates the possibility that they only hired because of those standards. But for the record, Emmett Martin went to Bethel University, where he majored in criminal justice and played football. Justin Mills earned a criminal justice degree at West Virginia State, where he too played football. Those two seem well qualified for a starting job at a police department.
I haven’t been able to find much biographical information about the final officer, Justin Smith, but he too was hired before the new standards were put in place.
I suppose it’s still possible that Mr. Parmer, head of the one-man police department in Oklahoma, really does have sources in the Memphis PD, and that his “sources” are correct. Maybe his sources know of some non-public information, such as that these officers had expunged criminal records or failed to pass psychiatric screenings, but were then hired anyway simply because they’re black.
Maybe! But it seems unlikely. And from what public information we have, there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t have been hired but for the more relaxed standards. And there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t have been hired by any similar police agency. A 2021 study of police misconduct in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Chicago, for example, found that black officers were more likely than white officers to be disciplined for similar misconduct. That certainly cuts against the idea that black cops get special treatment because they’re black. (Actually it does, but not in the way Carlson and others would have you believe.)
As is often the case, there is a kernel of truth behind this demagoguery. Many police departments have lowered hiring standards over the last couple years.
But they’ve also been lowering their standards for some time. Former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper talked about this when I interviewed him back in 2011 for my book. Stamper specifically lamented how many departments had lowered their physical fitness standards. When cops aren’t fit, he said, they’re less confident in their ability to remain in control of a situation, which causes them to reach for a weapon more quickly. Stamper based these observations on his own experience in policing, which spanned the 1970s through around 2000.
This has been a perennial story for decades. In general, hiring standards have tightened when it comes to education, loosened when it comes to physical fitness and tend to waver when it comes to previous allegations of misconduct based on staffing needs. And all of this is heavily driven by the labor market. Here, for example, is a 2006 article about the Columbus, Georgia, department lowering its standards. Here’s one from 1964 about lower standards in Detroit. Here’s another from San Angelo, Texas in 2007. Here’s one from Dallas the same year. Here’s one about Louisville tightening requirements in 2004. Here’s one about Hartford lowering them in 1994. And Buffalo in 1987.
You get the idea. The Tucker Carlsons and Trumps Jr. of the world want you to think police departments like the one in Memphis lowered standards in pursuit of a diverse police force or because of some capitulation to “wokeness.” But the main reason most departments have lowered standards over the last couple years is is because too few people want to be police officers.
This brings us to another criticism rightist pundits are making — police departments like Memphis are facing these staff shortages because criticism of cops, punishment of cops, cops’ fear of being wrongly accused in a viral cell phone video, and other baby steps toward accountability have driven people out of the profession.
It’s certainly possible there’s a perception in law enforcement that cops are unjustly accused, charged, and disciplined. But nearly every piece of data we have suggests that perception is squarely at odds with reality. Media reports, academic reports, and official investigations still consistently show that citizen complaints are rarely taken seriously in most departments, that cops are rarely disciplined for misconduct — even when found to have violated policy — and that actual criminal charges are vanishingly rare.
It’s also worth breaking down what this argument is actually saying: If you don’t want police officers to stop racially profiling and unjustly beating and killing people, you need to stop complaining when police officers racially profile, beat and kill people.
There are also other, more convincing explanations for the current staffing shortages in policing. It’s true that there was a wave retirements after the George Floyd protests in many cities. But there’s an explanation for that other than to simply blame it on Black Lives Matter: In many cities, police officer pensions are based in part on how much officers make in their final year on the job. A lot of officers made a lot of overtime in 2020, which provided a strong incentive for older officers to retire.
Second, it isn’t just policing. Interest in public service jobs is down in general right now, in large swaths of the country, in fields from teaching to firefighting to sanitation. The public sector generally tends to have personnel shortages when unemployment is low, and right now unemployment is really low. It seems unlikely that wokeism is why cities are struggling to fill sanitation positions right now.
Third, it’s certainly possible that policing just isn’t a popular profession right now. And maybe that’s because of all the criticism of cops. But it just might be because of the actions of police officers and police departments themselves. Is it really all that difficult to understand why a large portion of the large black populations in, say, Memphis, Minneapolis, Chicago, Cleveland, or Baltimore wouldn’t be particularly eager to go into law enforcement right now?
The argument that police departments are lowering their standards to attract more diverse applicants also rests on the fairly racist assumption that higher standards will naturally disqualify most or all applicants who aren’t white. I don’t think there’s much evidence of that.
The other prong of the right’s effort to blame affirmative action for Nichols’ death concerns Memphis chief C.J. Davis. The argument here is that Davis is unqualified for the job and only got it because she’s a black woman. Some have pointed to the fact that Davis was actually fired when she worked at the Atlanta PD for failing to investigate alleged sex crimes involving the spouse of an officer she worked with. She appealed, and was reinstated by a civil service board.
That’s pretty damning. But this also happens all the time with white police officials. Davis was fired by a black police chief. He certainly didn’t seem reluctant to fire her because she’s a black woman.
I suppose it’s possible that the civil service board reinstated her because of her race and gender, but the smart money is that she was reinstated because . . . she’s a law enforcement officer. It is extremely difficult to fire a police officer in this country, even for egregious abuse and misconduct. Cops who have committed really ugly misconduct are regularly promoted. In fact, it sometimes seems like police departments reward problem officers purely out of spite.
After her reinstatement, Davis climbed the ranks in Atlanta, and was eventually hired to be police chief in Durham. She was in Durham for five years and generally well-regarded before she was hired to take over in Memphis in 2021. During her time in Durham and Memphis she became an outspoken advocate for reform.
Davis dropped the ball. I don’t think she should have been reinstated in Atlanta. It was definitely a mistake to start the SCORPRION program, and once she did, it doesn’t appear she did much to ensure that it was staffed with cops who have the right experience and — more importantly — temperament to serve on that unit. It also looks like her administration didn’t take citizens complaints against the unit all that seriously.
But remember, the right-wing criticism of Davis isn’t that she’s too lenient, didn’t do enough to rid Memphis of toxic police culture, or didn’t take citizen complaints seriously. It’s that she’s a diversity hire who embraces wokeism. The policy Davis instituted that’s most responsible for Nichols’ death was her creation of the SCORPION crime suppression units. Reformers have long opposed these types of units. Conservatives and other tough-on-crime types have long embraced them.
The most pernicious part of this dumb narrative is that it takes all the contributors to Nichols’ death that were driven by very real, very destructive pathologies in policing — pathologies that much of the right has long either or ignored or defended — and blames those pathologies on the fact that the officers involved were black. As they tell it, Nichols wasn’t killed by the pervasive, macho, cowboy culture that infects has infected these crime suppression units for years. He was killed by “black-on-black violence.” These officers didn’t feel licensed to savagely beat a man for several minutes knowing it was all on video because they assumed they’d be protected by the Blue Wall of Silence, a corrupt police culture, and the knowledge that police executives are either uninterested or unable to hold even the worst cops accountable. Instead, they felt empowered to beat Nichols to death because the Memphis police chief is an incompetent black woman who got her job because of affirmative action.
And after denying in example after example after example that there’s a problem with systematic brutality and covering up for abusive officers, the right-wing fever swamp looks at the brazen, undeniable brutality in the video and rather than acknowledge that perhaps this footage suggests they were wrong, they latch on to whatever unfounded, racially loaded speculation they can find — for example, that these officers must have been members of a black street gang.
As an aside, it’s worth noting here that there is a well-documented problem with members of violent groups infiltrating law enforcement. They just happen to be white supremacist groups. Carlson of course has never reported on that. There’s also a well-documented, decades-long problem with actual criminal gangs within one police department in particular, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Reporting by journalist Cerise Castle has made it pretty clear that recently defeated Los Angeles sheriff Alex Villanueva either actively encouraged, enabled, or knowingly allowed those gangs to fester. Villanueva has been a regular guest on Carlson’s show over the last few years, where he gave Carlson a brown face in uniform to confirm Carlson’s complaints about “wokeism” in policing.
Cops who should have been fired several times over get reinstated and promoted all the time. Citizen complaints against police officers for abuse and misuse of force are routinely ignored. Elite units are regularly staffed with cowboy cops, given little oversight, and have racked up astonishing records of corruption and abuse. And police culture is riddled with celebrations of militarism and violence.
Everything critics like Carlson are trying to blame on affirmative action or woke policies are, actually, common everyday problems U.S policing. But faced with a video that provides irrefutable evidence of the horrific consequences of those problems, Carlson and those like him want you to focus instead on the fact that the cops who killed Tyre Nichols are black.