Wissot: Criminal cops are worse than common criminals
Like many of you watching the video of Tyre Nichols being brutally beaten to death on the streets of Memphis, I was appalled at the sight of five police officers looking like members of the Crips and Bloods carrying out a revenge attack against a gang rival. The fact that the five cops were Black brought little comfort to their dead black victim. Nothing on the video indicated that these symbols of law and order had any interest in restraining and arresting Nichols for alleged reckless driving. They were simply hell-bent on, as an attorney for the deceased young man’s family said, “treating him like a human piñata.”
The horrific incident reminded me of the 1993 Rodney King video with two important differences: King’s fateful encounter with some of LA’s not-so-finest was over much sooner and he didn’t die. Nichols attempted to be compliant but it was impossible for him to obey the 71 commands in 13 minutes the police issued while continuing to pummel him. The only reason I can think of for why five cops weighing at least a combined 1,000 pounds and wearing body cams gruesomely murdered a slightly built 150-pound man was that they thought they’d never be held accountable. They acted as if being a cop came with a badge, a gun and a license to kill.
Five black cops on a rage-fueled rampage raises an interesting question: Didn’t it disturb them that they were doing to a young Black man what white cops around the country have been accused of doing to similarly unarmed, compliant Black men? Didn’t it dawn on them that they were doing to Tyre Nichols what Derek Chauvin did to George Floyd? It was as if they were color-blind to the fact that they were killing someone who could have been a younger brother or even a son.
Criminal cops are worse than common criminals because they betray the hope, faith and trust the public places in them. Criminal cops are worse than common criminals because cops can cover up their crimes with lame claims of self-defense. Criminal cops are worse than common criminals because we expect cops to catch criminals, not act like them. We hire cops to combat crime. Who should we hire to combat criminal cops?
When we talk about police reform, the conversation gets sidetracked by hot-button issues like “defund the police.” In spite of calls from Black Lives Matter street protesters in the wake of the George Floyd murder to defund police departments, most cities haven’t. Police departments have also refused to capitulate to demands that they disband.
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Amid the criticism of abusive police behavior, departments around the country are experiencing an increase in retirements and a drop in recruitment at the same time that crime is on the rise. It’s a tough time to be a cop, especially for the overwhelming number of police officers who are honest, compassionate and dedicated. If I was a cop, and believe me I lack the requisite courage to wear the uniform, I would be pissed, outraged and incensed at the “few bad apples” who are a disgrace to the profession. The problem is that the “few bad apples” have become a few too many to ignore. Bad cops make the job of good cops harder when it comes to garnering support from the communities they serve.
Gross misconduct isn’t tolerated in the medical and legal professions. Doctors can lose their license to practice medicine and lawyers can be disbarred if they are found guilty of criminal offenses. The same should be true for police officers. It shouldn’t come down to a choice between supporting cops like the “Memphis Five” or living in a community with compromised police protection. We should be able to offer sufficient incentives to attract and retain good cops along with the courage to overcome police union resistance to getting rid of the bad ones. Allowing cops to abuse young Black men because they made the mistake of “driving while Black” shouldn’t be the price Black communities pay in order to receive the protection all communities deserve from law enforcement.
Credit goes out to the authorities in Memphis who swiftly moved to fire and charge the officers involved. When police are guilty of criminal conduct, communities of color expect at the very least they be held to the same standards that govern the rest of us.
I have enormous respect for the difficult, dangerous and all too often unappreciated job that the police do. I’ve never had an unpleasant experience with a cop during the times I’ve been stopped for speeding or a tail light infraction. They’ve been courteous toward me and I’ve been courteous toward them. But, hell, I’ve been white all my life, and now, at 78, pose a threat to no one but myself. I don’t fit any stereotype that would cause me to be profiled.
We expect an awful lot from the men and women in blue. I think they deserve to be respected, but so do the citizens they were hired to protect and serve. Preventing a few too many cops from roughing up young Black men who pose no threat to them would be a good way to rectify the damage they’ve done to the profession.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org