by James A. Bacon
Earlier this month, five Memphis police officers were charged with the murder of Tyre Nichols, a young Black man, after severely beating him during a traffic stop. Predictably, the mainstream media framed the story as an example of systemic racism in policing, even though all five police officers also were Black. Somehow, it was argued, the Black officers had internalized the culture of White supremacy.
Heather MacDonald with the Manhattan Institute offered a different interpretation. The officers ignored protocol for traffic stops. They failed to follow the chain of command. They issued contradictory orders. They botched the deployment of a taser and pepper spray. They ignored strict orders not to strike a suspect in the head unless he poses an imminent threat. None of this has anything to do with racism, she wrote, and everything to do with deficiencies in recruitment and training.
A similar incident has occurred in Virginia. Although it has not generated the same level of attention, it raises many of the same issues. Second-degree murder charges have been filed against seven Henrico County sheriff deputies and three hospital workers for the beating death of a mentally ill patient, Irvo Otieno, at Central State Hospital. The violence seems less motivated by maliciousness than incompetence but, whatever the case, the force was excessive.
MacDonald worries that policing in many communities is in a death spiral. The Memphis Police Department (MPD) is down more than 300 officers in the last two years, and 1,350 over the last decade, due to resignations and retirements. Due to recruiting problems, the MPD eliminated the requirement for a college degree. It began hiring more rookies with felony and misdemeanor charges. The stigmatization of police during the George Floyd protests made it even harder to recruit. With less experience on average than in the past, police are less likely to know how to respond effectively to situations. Nationally, more ugly incidents occur, more police are prosecuted, morale erodes, recruitment stalls, and matters just get worse.
One wonders if the MacDonald paradigm applies to the beating death of Otieno, who also was Black. The “White supremacy” framing doesn’t fit easily. Both Black and White deputies were involved. Confusion reigned. According to The Washington Post, there was such a tangled pile-on of deputies on Otieno that the judge had difficulty assigning relative degrees of culpability during bond hearings.
Much remains to be reported on this case, so drawing hard conclusions would be premature. What we can do is ask the right questions. MacDonald’s essay helps us devise queries that might otherwise go unasked.
- How experienced were the deputies involved in the incident?
- How much training had they received? Had they received training to deal with the kind situation they encountered at Central State?
- Is the Henrico sheriff’s department short-staffed? It is having trouble recruiting deputies?
- Has the sheriff’s department lowered its hiring standards in response to manpower shortages?
Labor shortages are endemic in the United States today. Many professions — teachers, nurses, law enforcement — are severely short-staffed. Employers are scraping the bottom of the barrel, sacrificing standards and accepting less qualified recruits in order to meet their staffing goals. It does not help the cause of recruiting qualified law-enforcement officers to throw around loose charges of systemic racism and legitimizing the sentiment that “all police are bastards.” If the profession is sufficiently stigmatized, bastards are the only ones who will be willing to serve!
A judge and/or jury will ascertain the guilt or innocence of the individuals who piled on Otieno. Meanwhile, Virginia lawmakers need to grapple with the larger implications. Was this a one-off incident or is Virginia’s law-enforcement system at risk for more tragedies like it? If so, do we blame “systemic racism”? Does tagging something “racist” provide useful guidance on how to prevent future incidents? Conversely, are we better off addressing failures in recruitment, standards and training that might be the root cause of the seeming ineptitude on display?
We won’t know the answer until more facts emerge. Until they do, let’s not settle for easy answers that confirm our biases.
James A. Bacon is executive director of The Jefferson Council. The views expressed here are entirely his own.