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The quick arrests of the police officers who beat Tyre Nichols may be a 'blueprint.' But there are no easy answers

Protesters gather during a rally against the fatal police assault of Tyre Nichols, in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 28, 2023. (CHENEY ORR/AFP via Getty Images)
Protesters gather during a rally against the fatal police assault of Tyre Nichols, in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 28, 2023. (CHENEY ORR/AFP via Getty Images)

Make no mistake. The killing of Tyre Nichols was a lynching: an extrajudicial killing, especially of a Black person and by a group. A total of 13 police officers now face internal discipline, termination or second-degree murder charges. Celebrity civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who has represented many families whose young men have been killed by police, lauded the speed of this investigation, saying it should be the “blueprint going forward” in similar deaths. If there are no convictions, it’ll add to a history where Black lives don’t matter in our legal system.

So, we want convictions here, right?

Yes. But beyond the speed of the arrests, there’s another way that this case is different from past police killings. Rarely, if ever, have we seen such graphic video evidence of a police lynching of a Black man where all the killers were also Black.

As a lawyer and antiracist policy professional, I spend my time analyzing how laws and government practices are systematically applied differently for people of color — especially Black people — and whether, in any given situation, there is the possibility that racism is being perpetuated. Thinking about law enforcement officers and first responders involved in the killing of Tyre Nichols, it isn’t clear that convictions answer the question of what systemic change looks like. We need to brace ourselves for a more complicated conversation; we have to address the question even if there isn’t an easy answer.

Since 2015, police officers — almost exclusively white — have killed Black individuals at much more than twice the rate at which police officers killed non-Black people. According to a database built by the Washington Post, too many victims of documented police violence were unarmed. And yet between 2015 and 2023, juries have convicted less than a dozen police officers for murder, including white officer Terence Sutton for the murder of Karon Hylton-Brown, white officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, and white officer Roy Oliver for the murder of Jordan Edwards.

If we expand our view to look at the over 400 officer-involved shootings of unarmed people since 2015, including those that haven’t ended in the victim’s death, we find that 41 officers have been convicted — mostly for recklessness, negligence and misdemeanors. That’s a lot of officers walking away.

So while the quick arrests in this case do, as Crump says, suggest a change in the national approach to such killings, many Black Americans fear something else is going on: The U.S. is swiftly and harshly punishing Black people for something white people get away with regularly.

It’s not without context. Starting as early as preschool, Black children in America — regardless of socioeconomic status — are significantly more likely to be identified as disruptive by authority figures for the same behavior as their white or Hispanic peers. Throughout grade school, Black students are more likely than white students to receive harsh consequences for disciplinary infractions, even when committing similar offenses. Prosecutors are twice as likely to charge Black people with offenses that carry a mandatory minimum sentence than white people alleged to have committed similar actions.

And still, for Black people watching this case, any outcome will have a troubling asterisk.

Is that what’s happening now? When we think of the speed at which these officers were charged, and assign terms like “blueprint,” a guide to building something new, we have to understand how that same thing was built before. Does this blueprint truly address past design flaws?

Let’s be clear: The Memphis Five should be awaiting trial for murder. The lynching was indefensible, no matter who committed it. However, most attempts to convict police officers of murder charges don’t go far — because of a legal doctrine called “qualified immunity.” “Qualified immunity” means that police officers get away with behavior that would be criminal for a civilian; courts allow such charges only when they fit a narrow scenario in which the officers violate the victim’s constitutional rights. If the Memphis Five prosecution successfully challenges that loophole, it’s good news for the future.

And still, for Black people watching this case, any outcome will have a troubling asterisk. If these officers are not convicted of murder, we will once again endure the outrage of watching police freely killing Black people without accountability. But if they are convicted, we’ll know that here, too, Black men are punished for something white men have done with impunity. And we will suspect that rogue white officers will know it too.

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So long as Black people — including Black police officers — are punished more quickly and more seriously than their white peers, we’ll know we’re watching an ugly American tradition in which Black people are punished in two ways; once for what they’ve done wrong, and again for being Black. These are the conversations we have to keep having.

And we’ll be watching to see what happens next time — because yes, we know there will be a next time — when the perpetrators are white.

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Jon Carter Cognoscenti contributor
Jonathan Carter is a lawyer and the Model Legislation Fellow at the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research.

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