February 4, 2023 

Monday-morning quarterbacking the Memphis incident 


PERF members, 

I’d planned to write this week on our recent ICAT conference, but I keep thinking about the death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, so instead I want to get you thinking about how the profession of policing can begin to move forward from that horrible incident. I don’t want to tell you how to manage your agency, but I think there’s an important conversation you may want to have. 

It involves Monday-morning quarterbacking.As I wrote in 2020 following the shooting of Jacob Blake by a Kenosha, Wisconsin police officer: 

For the past six years, since Ferguson, police leaders have focused on reforming policy and training, and reengineering what we do. That is important work, there have been meaningful changes, and those reforms must continue and accelerate.  

But there is still the elephant in the room, and that elephant is a police culture that can be overly sensitive to criticizing other officers and reluctant to engage in tough conversations. Reshaping that culture could help us get out of the morass we find ourselves in. But culture is something that almost no one is talking about or working on. 

So where do we start? Changing culture is an enormous undertaking, but here is a first step – a step that is not about blaming individual police officers, but about having conversations to understand what happened in past incidents so we can prevent the next one. 

On Monday morning, police chiefs and sheriffs across the country call their command staffs into a meeting. Close the door and turn on the video of the Jacob Blake shooting from Kenosha, Wisconsin. Then start a conversation with your commanders about the incident. 

The killing of Mr. Nichols demands this same sort of conversation. Show your command staff the footage and ask some tough questions about the incident: 

  • Is any of this consistent with how officers are trained? 

  • Should supervisors have been on scene, and should they have known how this specialized unit operated? 

  • These officers had body-worn cameras. Why might they have behaved this way when they knew they were being recorded?  

  • Why didn’t initial reports accurately reflect what was seen on video? Could officers’ statements have been aimed at fixing a narrative?  

  • What role do you think the culture of specialized units might have played in this incident? 

  • The agency has a “duty to intervene” policy. Why didn’t anyone intervene when they saw Mr. Nichols being beaten? 

  • The agency also has a policy requiring officers to render first aid. Why didn’t the police render appropriate first aid? 

I’m sure that video left you with many other questions you want answered.  

Ask your command staff to be open and candid, and listen closely to what they say. I know everyone wants to believe that something like this couldn’t happen in their agency, but that’s exactly what many chiefs believed right up until they were faced with their own high-profile incident. Many of you have hundreds or thousands of officers, and they have countless interactions every day. Once public trust is shattered by an incident of police misconduct, it is difficult to rebuild 

Ask how this video relates to your agency’s practices. What is your agency doing to closely supervise those parts of the department that are more likely to engage in risky behavior, such as specialized units or newer cops with less experience on the job and in life? Do your supervisors understand what’s expected of them, and are they appropriately trained for their role? Would they be expected to show up at the scene of a potentially volatile situation like this? Are they regularly auditing body-worn camera footage, particularly footage from high-risk units and officers with a history of using force, to see what’s happening in the field? Do your officers’ reports provide an accurate portrayal of events that occur? 

Is your agency providing enough scenario-based training to prepare officers for situations they may encounter on patrol? Are your officers prepared to intervene if they see a colleague acting inappropriately? Does your policy require them to intervene and render aid, and are they trained to do so?  

(As a side note, the late John Timoney was the first to tell me about the debate over whether agencies should require officers to report every intervention with a colleague. After the Rodney King incident, the NYPD discussed implementing a duty to intervene policy. But there was concern that by requiring those who act to report every intervention, they would deter officers from intervening in the first place. So the decision at the time was not to require that every intervention be reported.) 

Responses to all these questions will differ from agency to agency, but you should make sure you and your command staff have answers. Then have your command staff repeat the exercise with their individual divisions. They should focus on their area of responsibility and identify what their division does well and what they need to improve. Then your command staff should report back about those discussions. 

You should also address your first-line supervisors directly. Supervisors are expected to have close oversight of officers under their supervision, but clearly that didn’t occur in Memphis. State your expectations plainly: Any supervisor should know if their officers are operating inappropriately and must not tolerate that behavior, even if it doesn’t rise to the level of misconduct seen in Memphis. Make sure they know you will hold them accountable for their failure to hold the officers they supervise accountable. First-line supervisors have a key role to play in preventing and responding to incidents that could lead to a use of force. (PERF is developing a training program for first-line supervisors.) 

It’s painful to watch videos like this, and I know this can be a difficult process, but it’s a necessary step forward. Challenge your agency’s culture and conventional thinking. Identify the weak links in your agency and work to strengthen them. Because it only takes failure by one officer or one unit to cause a needless death and tarnish all the good work you’ve done. And changing policing and protecting your agency require strong leadership.  

I’d like to be part of this process in a few of your agencies. If you’d be interested in bringing in an outsider like me to work with you to moderate this discussion in the coming weeks, please let me know. This is an important conversation for all of us to have. 

Thanks for all you do.