Advocates call for federal police reform after Tyre Nichols’ death
Experts debate whether specialized units are effective—and safe
The family of Tyre Nichols is invoking the name of another man who died after a violent encounter with police: George Floyd. At Nichols’ funeral last week, his mother, RowVaughn Wells, called on Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.
“We need to get that bill passed. Because if we don’t … the next child that dies, that blood is gonna be on their hands,” she said.
Vice President Kamala Harris also promoted the bill in brief remarks at Nichols’ funeral. Nichols, a 29-year-old FedEx worker, died Jan. 7 after police with Memphis’ SCORPION unit pulled him over. Authorities released body camera footage in late January showing five police officers repeatedly striking Nichols as he screamed for his mother. He died of his injuries three days later.
After Nichols’ death, the Memphis Police Department disbanded the SCORPION (Street Crimes Operations to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods) unit and fired all five officers. Prosecutors have charged them with second-degree murder. The department fired another officer for violating department procedures in connection with the incident and suspended a seventh.
Law enforcement experts argue the tragedy underscores a need for accountability measures that prevent specialized units from getting out of control. But they disagree on the level of government best suited to make real change.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is named after the 46-year-old black man whose 2020 death at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked nationwide protests and calls to “defund the police.” The measure would require all federal officers to wear body cameras, prohibit officers from using chokeholds, ban no-knock warrants in drug cases, and threaten to withhold funding from state and local departments that do not comply.
The act would also make it easier to bring misconduct charges in civil cases against individual officers and create a national registry to compile data on complaints and records of police misconduct. Departments would be required to report on the use of force, officer misconduct, and stops and searches, and agencies could search the registry to avoid hiring cops dismissed by other departments for misconduct. The U.S. House of Representatives narrowly passed the bill in March 2021, but a motion to reconsider the measure halted its progress.
Before the unit was deactivated, officers in the SCORPION unit patrolled high-crime areas determined by the volume of local 911 calls. The department started the unit in November 2021 to address violent crime. Memphis saw a record 342 homicides that year.
James Dudley, a 32-year San Francisco Police Department veteran, witnessed firsthand how specialized task forces launched with the best intentions can slip into gray areas without proper supervision. His department created a specialized unit after an uptick in drug related homicides in the mid 1990s. “Too often … you get these passed-along bad apples that are never addressed,” he said.
According to Dudley, these types of incidents come down to a lack of training and supervision. “When was the last time their supervisor sat down and looked at their use of force logs? When was the last time their supervisors looked over their police reports, their appearances in court, their conviction rate, their complaints?” he said. “All those things add up.”
In 2000, over 100 victims filed lawsuits against four members of the self-named group, “The Riders,” a West Oakland police anti-gang unit. The claims alleged the officers planted drugs on suspects, obstructed justice, falsified police reports, and brutally beat suspects. None of the officers were criminally convicted, but the department was placed under nearly two decades of federal oversight set to end in 2023 after a year of probation. Two new investigations may complicate the process.
Lars Trautman is the national director for the conservative criminal justice reform initiative Right on Crime. He compared specialized units like the SCORPION to a “pressure cooker kind of environment” unlike other specialized units with more defined aims. “They’re a little more amorphous when they’re out there to go into high crime areas and stop crime,” he said. “They don’t necessarily specify much more beyond that very generalized mission.”
But Dudley and Trautman are both wary about broad federal reforms like the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. Trautman said there’s little the federal government can do to force reforms on the thousands of state and local police departments beyond incentivizing changes with funding.
The act has little chance of passing Congress. After spending months negotiating over police reform 2021, Sens. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Cory Booker, D-N.J. are considering how to restart reform discussions.
“Resurrecting the House progressives’ police reform bill is a nonstarter,” Scott tweeted Thursday. Instead he argued for “common ground solutions that actually have a shot at passing” and could incentivise better recruitment, training, and safety.
Manhattan Institute adjunct fellow and retired police Capt. Dorothy Moses Schulz agrees. She would rather see the federal government subsidize recruit training to prevent small departments from unwittingly hiring wandering cops to save money. Other parts of the legislation, like the push for police cameras, duplicate measures already adopted by many departments, she said.
Schulz argues centralizing data won’t stop incidents from happening since it’s up to local supervisors to hold officers accountable. Rather they put an undue burden on police departments. “Police departments risk losing their funding because they can’t keep up with this stream of data that would be requested of them,” she said, “By the time that stuff filters up to the federal level, those people will have had plenty of time to wreak more havoc.”
But Joanna Schwartz, a law professor at UCLA School of Law, said collecting national data is essential. “We have frighteningly limited data about policing,” she said. “It’s … a first step that we need in order to be better able to understand what the scope of the problems are.”
If the federal government gets involved, Dudley said changes should be swift and specific, such as creating training for special unit supervisors and setting up goals and measures that assess groups’ effectiveness. He warned against drawn-out reforms like the two decades of federal oversight in Oakland. “The fixes should be quick and they shouldn’t take 21 years,” he said.
State and local departments have the final say. Tennessee is considering its own reforms. Democratic State Reps. Joe Towns, G.A. Hardaway, and John Ray Clemmons, plan to introduce legislation to mandate mental health evaluations for officers and require non-escalation and implicit bias training for Tennessee officers.