Is Memphis setting a new standard for response to and investigation of in-custody death? By: Greg Friese, MS, NRP

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Tonight, bodycam video of the Tyre Nichols traffic stop will be released. Five former Memphis Police Department (MPD) officers have been charged with second-degree murder and other crimes in the arrest and death of Tyre Nichols.

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Since the arrest of Nichols on January 7 and his death on January 10, there has been a steady release of information about the incident and the department’s investigation. In less than three weeks we have learned from the department and the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office that:

  • A man arrested after a traffic stop was hospitalized.

  • The man, Tyre Nichols, died after three days of hospitalization.

  • There was a potential use of force that the department was investigating.

  • MPD officers involved were served notice of impending administrative actions.

  • The Department of Justice opened a civil rights inquiry into the incident.

  • On January 20, five Memphis police officers at the Nichols traffic stop were fired.

  • Two Memphis Fire Department EMTs were relieved of duty for their involvement in the incident.

  • Department officials have said they found the video of the traffic stop and arrest to be shocking and disturbing.

  • Nichol’s family and legal representatives were allowed to view the video of Nichol’s arrest.

  • Additional Memphis police officers were under investigation for their potential involvement.

  • The incident is being investigated with the department’s full cooperation.

  • The five former MPD officers were charged with second-degree murder.

Chief Cerelyn Davis, in video remarks, told viewers that she expects they will feelChief Cerelyn Davis, in video remarks, told viewers that she expects they will feel
Chief Cerelyn Davis, in video remarks, told viewers that she expects they will feel “outrage” when they watch the bodycam video of the January 7, 2023 traffic stop of Tyre Nichols. (Memphis Police Department / YouTube)

Police Chief Cerelyn Davis, in a video released just after midnight on January 26, expressed her disappointment and asked for calm when the incident video is released. Anticipating the release of the video in the following days Davis told viewers that she expects they will feel “outrage in the disregard of basic human rights.”

Chief Davis told viewers that “none of this is a calling card for inciting violence or destruction on our community or against our citizens.”

Though Nichol’s family and the citizens of Memphis have high expectations for their police department and demands for the release of information and transparency, the steady release of information and actions taken by the department has been relatively rapid and forthcoming. Is Memphis setting a new standard for responding to and communicating about an in-custody death?

Crisis response considerations

As Memphis braces for the public’s reaction to the video, other law enforcement leaders, like FBI Director Christopher Wray, and organizations, like the International Association of Chiefs of Police, have shared their sentiments of outrage and disappointment, while also asking for restraint and peaceful protest.

Law enforcement leaders in every community, not just Memphis, should be following this incident closely for the lessons they might apply to a future incident in their own community, but also to prepare themselves, their officers and their citizens for the chance that the reaction in Memphis, like the response to the murder of George Floyd, will ripple throughout the country to communities of all sizes and demographics. The protests that spread across the country from Minneapolis and Kenosha resulted in citizen and police injuries, as well as significant property destruction.

Here are questions law enforcement leaders everywhere, not just in Memphis, should be able to answer about how they have prepared for the release of the Trye Nichols bodycam video:

  • How are patrol officers discussing the incident and the need for calm with the residents on their beat?

  • What advice have business owners received on steps to protect their property and the lawful actions they can take to protect their property and possessions?

  • Have police department leaders met with formal and informal community leaders to pre-plan protest locations and activities?

  • Has the department been using technology and open-source intelligence practices to monitor plans for protests, the arrival of out-of-state protestors, and calls for violence?

  • How is the department using and disseminating that intelligence to other local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, and their own personnel to prevent and prepare for mass violence?

  • Since the widespread civil unrest and violence of 2020, has the department purchased adequate personal protective equipment, trained officers on how to use that equipment and maintained that equipment so it is ready if needed in the days ahead?

  • Have patrol officers received roll call training on the different tactics to use depending on if they are patrolling at a peaceful protest versus ending a violent outbreak of crime that is causing death, injury and property destruction?

  • What are you, as the leader of the department, doing behind the scenes and publicly to show support for the honorable and dedicated police officers on your force?

The final question about officer support is perhaps the most important because in a few hours, Memphis officers and their colleagues from neighboring local and state agencies could be directly interacting with citizens at peaceful protests, hopefully, or attempting to contain and diffuse violence. Those officers, we know from the experiences of law enforcement in 2020, will be most effective if they know they have the current and ongoing support of the chief. Officers need to know that if they act lawfully, within department policy and consistent with their training that the department will back them against accusations and allegations of wrongdoing.

We will soon learn if the Memphis approach to steadily releasing information, quickly investigating the incident, firing the five police officers and warning the public about the awfulness of the video has any impact on defusing community tensions and preventing the loss of life, harm to innocents and damage to property. We will also learn if law enforcement leaders in other communities have retained the lessons of 2020 and taken action in the past two weeks to prepare their officers and communities for renewed protests and violence. We will also find out if the officers honorably protecting and serving their community after the disgraceful actions of five of their former colleagues have the continuing private and public support of their department’s administration.

NEXT: 6 considerations for PIOs ahead of the release of the Tyre Nichols bodycam video