Once again, our nation is reeling over the brutal murder of a Black person at the hands of police. The killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis on January 9, captured in excruciating detail by police body cams and CCTV, shows multiple officers beating him and bragging to each other about the injuries they had inflicted. Not once did Nichols, a 145-pound man with Crohn’s disease, fight back.
Other first responders who arrived at the scene failed to render timely aid to Nichols, who was left to bleed out for many minutes until he was finally taken to the hospital. Three days later, he was pronounced dead.
The whirlwind of grief, anger, and media and political spectacle that grips our country feels so similar. Indeed, we’ve been here many times before. Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, George Floyd, Daunte Wright, Tyre Nichols. What else is there to say that hasn’t already been said, time and again, in the wake of these and countless other deaths?
Modern technology—the rise of camera phones, body cameras, and social media—has given all of America a front-row seat to police brutality and the regularity with which it is exacted upon people of color. Yet here we are, 32 years since the attack on Rodney King shocked our nation, and police are still regularly caught on camera acting with impunity.
We must not allow ourselves to become demoralized and gradually desensitized to the graphic violence against Black people that fills our airwaves. Our rage and our demands for change must not cease.
Today’s calls for police reform are not simply about rooting out “bad apples” from law enforcement. In Tyre Nichols’s case, the fact that five police officers, all belonging to the same unit, have been charged with his murder shows the depth and breadth of the rot that lies within that police department.
Systemic, institutional change is needed. The role and function of policing in our society must be reexamined. Civilian oversight of the institutions that exist under the mantra of “protecting and serving” our communities must be radically expanded.
Here in New York City, home to the largest police department in the nation with three times the number of full-time sworn officers as the second-largest PD (Chicago), we can lead the way and work to create a model for national reform.
We must invest more resources into mental health services, youth programs, Alternatives to Incarceration (ATIs), and other avenues that prevent crime without resorting to police action. We must build a stronger Civilian Complaint Review Board that is empowered to hold law enforcement accountable and whose findings cannot simply be ignored. We must pass specific laws to improve public oversight and scrutiny of police practices.
Once such piece of legislation currently under consideration in the NY City Council is the How Many Stops Act. This consists of two bills, Intro 538 and Intro 586, that would bring critical and urgent transparency to the NYPD’s daily activities.
In recent years, we have seen the reemergence of “stop-and-frisk” and “broken windows” policing, which threaten to return us to the type of failed and abusive police tactics that existed in NYC for many years. Research has shown that constant, forced interaction with law enforcement inflicts real harm on Black, Latinx, and other New Yorkers of color. The city must acknowledge this reality and require the NYPD to document a much broader range of its low-level enforcement activities. The public has a right to know “How Many Stops” are being conducted, and for what purposes. Only then will we have a full grasp of the underlying problems and be able to make informed choices about what’s necessary—not just to weed out bad cops, but to build a new framework for public safety.
Our 24/7 news cycle, which chases outrage for ratings and clicks, will soon move on from the Tyre Nichols case, if it hasn’t already by the time of this publication. But we cannot let the urgency of the moment die out—this is not just about winning justice for Tyre, but about fighting for the right of every person to live and exist peacefully in their communities. We do not need one more unwitting martyr to make our case. It’s time for police reform in New York and across the nation, now.
George Gresham is president of 1199SEIU, the nation’s largest healthcare union, representing 450,000 members in New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland, Florida, and the District of Columbia.