Editor’s note: On July 26, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it will conduct a “pattern or practice” review into the Memphis Police Department.
In the aftermath of Tyre Nichols’ death, community organizers and the Nichols family have been pushing for reforms to change the Memphis Police Department’s culture and policies. Their goal is to prevent another brutal death while in police custody, like what happened to Tyre Nichols in January.
They thought they were close to meaningful change on March 7 when the Memphis City Council passed five ordinances, excluding one, under legal review, that would ban police from using most minor traffic infractions as a pretext to stop drivers. But at the same meeting, the council passed the first reading of a different ordinance, named for Nichols and backed by Mayor Jim Strickland, that purports to consolidate the previously passed ordinances but, in fact, nullifies them, opponents said.
Over community members’ objections, the “Tyre Nichols Justice in Policing Ordinance” passed a second reading on March 21, leaving organizers feeling betrayed and Nichols’ family bewildered.
The family is against that ordinance as it’s currently written, and questioned the use of their son’s name if the council’s ordinance isn’t amended to include the community-centered ordinances.
“[The consolidated ordinance] is not doing enough. It needs to be reworded. It’s not addressing the issue,” Nichols’ stepfather Rodney Wells told MLK50 at a National Civil Rights Museum event on March 30.
“If the five ordinances are not included in the [‘Nichols’ ordinance], why is my son’s name attached to it?” RowVaughn Wells said at the event.
That makes Tuesday’s council meeting a pivotal one in determining whether policing in Memphis begins to change course with community input, or if it will stay the same, without community involvement.
Back to square one
Earlier this year, with Memphis under intense scrutiny and receiving national media attention, some city leaders seemed committed to changing the conditions that allowed several officers in unmarked police cars to pull Nichols over for a traffic stop and beat him to death.
These five community-centered ordinances, passed March 7, laid new accountability groundwork for the Memphis Police Department following the death of Tyre Nichols.
- Ordinance No. 5850: MPD cannot use unmarked cars during traffic stops except in “exigent circumstances”.
- Ordinance No. 5848: MPD is required to do a yearly independent review of the tactics taught at the police training academy.
- Ordinance No. 5853: MPD is required to routinely collect and regularly publish data related to traffic stops, arrests and use of force complaints.
- Ordinance No. 5851: The police department is also required to cooperate with the Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board as it investigates citizens’ complaints of police misconduct and excessive use of force, with the findings and recommendations published regularly in bimonthly reports.
- Ordinance No. 5852: After excessive and deadly use of force incidents by MPD, the Memphis City Council may conduct an independent review and publish the findings.
“We have members of the council who were walking with us at rallies and begging us to hold them accountable,” said Ron Davis, a South Memphis native and field organizer with the Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope.
Now organizers say they feel like they’re being pushed back to square one and are being steered into blindly trusting the city council. The ordinance, supported by the administration, passed the second reading on March 21 with all council members voting yes, except council Vice Chairman J.B. Smiley Jr., who abstained.
Smiley asked the community to be patient and trust the council’s process. The proposed consolidated ordinance, sponsored by Councilman Chase Carlisle, is set for a third reading on April 11 and will become law if it passes.
Organizers are skeptical.
“The national spotlight is off Memphis and now there’s backpedaling. This ordinance is not justice for Tyre,” said Amber Sherman, Official Black Lives Matter Memphis organizer.
At the March 21 council meeting, there was a palpable separation in the audience. A handful of uniformed police officers, including Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis, were stoically seated on the left side of the council chambers. A diverse group of community members — young, old, Black, white, Latinx — were spread across the council chambers, all in solidarity with Nichols’ family, vying for police accountability and pushing back against the “Tyre Nichols Justice in Policing Ordinance.”
That ordinance, community members said, will undo the solutions outlined and mandated in the five ordinances passed on March 7. Those were put forth and supported by community organizations like DeCarcerate Memphis, MICAH and Official Black Lives Matter Memphis.
Under those five newly-passed ordinances, traffic stops by unmarked police cars are banned except in “exigent circumstances,” where there’s a threat of imminent danger to life or serious property damage. The Memphis Police Department is required to conduct an annual independent review of the tactics taught at the police training academy. MPD must regularly collect and publish data related to traffic stops, arrests and use of force complaints.
These two ordinances are still on the table at the Memphis City Council.
- Ordinance No. 5858: The “Tyre Nichols Justice in Policing Ordinance” is a 17-page document which appears to provide some police reform while codifying pre-existing MPD policy. Organizers say the ordinance does nothing to address the root cause of a police culture of violence, which ultimately led to Nichols’ death. Nichols’ family and many community members are against the ordinance. The ordinance is up for a third and final reading on April 11. If it passes, it will repeal the previously-passed ordinances.
- Ordinance No. 5849: The “Driving Equality Ordinance” aims to end pretextual traffic stops, which is when an officer stops a driver for a minor traffic or equipment violation and proceeds to investigate for more serious criminal activity. Nichols was pulled over during a routine pretextual traffic stop. At its third reading on March 7, the ordinance was tabled until March 21. It was then tabled again and put under legal review until April 25.
The department is also required to cooperate with the Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board as it investigates citizens’ complaints of police misconduct, with CLERB’s findings and recommendations published regularly in bimonthly reports. Additionally, after someone alleges excessive and deadly use of force incidents by MPD, the city council may conduct an independent review and publish the findings.
The sixth remaining piece of legislation, the “Driving Equality Ordinance,” was tabled at the March 7 council meeting and is under legal review until April 25. The ordinance would ban police from using most minor traffic infractions as a pretext to stop drivers.
The five ordinances passed, despite Strickland and MPD leadership issuing a letter opposing several of them. Strickland described the legislation as “a detriment to our community” and “burdensome and costly to implement,” while questioning the legal purview of the city council to pass and enforce such ordinances related to the daily operation of the police department.
The proposed consolidated legislation brings reform that, as the ordinance reads, would not “inhibit legitimate police techniques to combat crimes against citizens.” Written by council attorney Allan Wade, the 17-page ordinance seems to fall in line with the mayor’s pushback against the community-centered ordinances, though it was supposed to combine four of the five passed ordinances.
“We want to reiterate that all traffic stops require probable cause and MPD does not allow pretextual stops. This ordinance will have an impact [on] MPD’s ability to reduce crime,” Strickland’s memo reads. “We do not believe that making fewer traffic stops is consistent with the desire of the community which has been very vocal about wanting ‘more traffic enforcement.’”
‘The response that we always see’
When the city council unveiled the “Tyre Nichols Justice in Policing Ordinance” at the March 7 meeting, organizers and community members were surprised by its content. They believe the council’s ordinance actually enshrines pre-existing police policy.
“It reads like they copied and pasted specific passages from the MPD handbook, word for word, into this ordinance as basically a way to codify into law the MPD handbook,” said Sherman.
The city council is also primed to consider an additional $15 million in the budget for police salaries.
Sherman and several other community members and organizers have been showing up at council meetings at 125 North Main Street Tuesday after Tuesday and are rallying to bring more people to the upcoming April 11 council meeting. DeCarcerate Memphis is also hosting several other community events in honor of Nichols beginning April 7 leading up to the council meeting.
“We’re seeing the response that we always see, which is that folks will always put the police first, even though they have not proven that they can actually keep folks safe,” Sherman said. “They have a murder allegation. [Policing] is the only job I know where you can be failing miserably and continue to be given more money over and over again.”
Reform at the city, county and national levels
The council and the Shelby County Board of Commissioners signed in March a nonbinding joint resolution for police reform. Titled the “Tyre Nichols Transparency in Policing Act,” the resolution requests that police and sheriff’s departments follow the same time frame of investigation, action and transparency as MPD did in the Nichols’ case. Although it is optional for agencies to adhere to the resolution, it is an effort to set precedent for how quickly law enforcement responds to incidents of police violence.
In February, the commission passed a duo of resolutions. One requests that the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office use the Nichols video in de-escalation training. The second resolution calls for improved data collection on Shelby County’s law enforcement agencies’ use of force, use of technology and more training to increase accountability.
In an appearance at a March 30 National Civil Rights Museum event in response to Nichols’ death, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) said she is committed to bringing forth federal police reform legislation, named the “Tyre Nichols Duty to Care” bill.
According to the Mapping Police Violence database, police have killed 113 people across the U.S. so far this year. In 2022, police killed 1,238 people, the highest number on record since 2014.
“I am still trying to figure out how this happened [to my son],” Wells said at the NCRM event. “For those passing laws, they need to look at what’s really happening. Too many Black and brown people are being beaten and killed by police.”
Brittany Brown is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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