As a Black man and retired police officer, I have been crying quite a bit lately. Crying from a deep sense of outrage, grief, shame and fear.
Outrage because, again, yet another unarmed Black man has been brutally killed by police officers. In communities of color throughout the United States, police use of deadly force, acts of misconduct and abuse have now seemingly grown to epidemic proportions. While people of color should be able to rely upon law enforcement to keep them safe, they now may feel victimized in the streets and in their homes by the very people who are supposed to protect them, not knowing if their name will be the next to be added to the ever-growing statistics.
Grief, because of the pain that I know Tyre Nichols’s family and close friends must now be going through. From everything I have heard, he was one of those who should have been able to rely upon the police to protect and serve. That he was abused, disrespected and treated inhumanely must be considered as incontrovertible. Yet, in this one tragic and inhumane event, history has repeated itself and proven yet again that the acts of some in policing are inherently biased against men and women of color and against low income communities.
I have also experienced a great deal of shame because of the fact that each of the ones who killed Tyre looked exactly like me. They allegedly swore the same oaths that I did to protect and serve the community. They were supposed to uphold the 200-plus-year legacy of every Black law enforcement officer who has ever served. They brought unearned destruction upon the more than 50 years of work that Black law enforcement officers have exerted to bring about change in our communities. They debased and dishonored the badge that they carried.
We can only presume that these officers were intent on sending a message, not only to Tyre but also to all others in view: If you ran from them, disregarded their presumed authority, there would be consequences to pay.
But most of all, fear, because I worry that my grandsons, great-grandsons and sons-in-law may one day become victims of this insanity. I carry a badge in my pocket that I would hope will provide me with some level of immunity when approached by one of the rogues on the job. But my family members will probably not have that luxury. I can only pray that they will remember the things I have taught them about how to survive a police encounter, and that they are able to live to fight another day. Fear, because I know in my heart that Tyre Nichols will probably not be the last, or even the only death in this coming year.
As members of one of the nation’s oldest professions, we can no longer allow inappropriate or illegal actions of law enforcement to go unpunished and unaccountable. Nor can we continue to disregard the disproportional deaths of Black lives at the hands of those whose duty it is to protect and serve. No longer can it be claimed that these incidents are mere anomalies that rarely take place and are being taken out of context. Nor can we any longer say that these incidents are perpetrated singularly by our White counterparts.
The words of Mayor Jacob Frey of Minneapolis after the brutal death of George Floyd, speak truth to power: “Being Black in America should not be a death sentence.” As members of a profession that, by its very mandate, is required to protect and serve, we must ensure that those among us who transgress are stripped of their anonymity and ousted in the most public fashion possible, regardless of who they are and what station they maintain.
As a profession, we must accept the historical facts of our founding and admit that the institution of policing, as it is currently practiced in these United States, is inherently biased against people of color and low income. It was designed to be that way.
We must stop the hiring of only slightly qualified people, just because they are part of a legacy in the agency. We must end the practice of training new officers to be warriors instead of guardians. We must ensure that if supervisors do not properly instruct their subordinates, they lose their authority. And we must change the way we manage and the policies we set forth.
We must insist that our nation’s leadership enact concrete legislation that calls for the total and complete disenfranchisement of those who engage in the unbridled use of excessive force. Once detected, they must never be allowed to carry a badge and gun, or act with any level of law enforcement authority. Qualified immunity must become a thing of the past, instead of a constant reminder that there are few ways to hold law enforcement fully accountable.
We can ill afford the continued creation and fostering of an atmosphere of racially hostile attitudes and behaviors on the part of officers who continue to place us all at risk because of their ignorance and callous-minded behaviors.
There must be change. There must be accountability. The carnage must be stopped.
Lieut. Charles P. Wilson (Ret.) is the webmaster and immediate past chair of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers (NABLEO).