The toxic culture in US police departments

Video of the brutal death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of five Memphis police officers following a traffic stop has been released. I have not seen it and will not watch it because it is reportedly horrific and I have no stomach for such things. This article describes in detail what happened.

Before the release, his mother RowVaughn Wells said that she will not watch the video. This is hardly surprising. If I, who have no connection to the victim, think it would be too painful to watch, imagine what it would be like for a mother to see her son beaten and kicked to death. She and the rest of the family appealed for calm and urged people not to riot in the wake of the release. People seemed to have heeded their call and the protests have been peaceful. That is a relief because if the protests had turned violent, media attention would have shifted from the murder of Nichols to the violence. Wells seems like a remarkable woman. She has even said that she feels sorry for her son’s killers.

“People don’t know what those five police officers did to our family. And they really don’t know what they did to their own families. They have put their own families in harm’s way,” she said.

“They have brought shame to their own families. They brought shame to the Black community. I just feel sorry for them. I really do. Because they didn’t have to do this.”

Wells spoke of seeing her 29-year-old son, whom she said was “my baby, a momma’s boy”, in the hospital after the beating, which was captured on a “horrific” video set to be released publicly on Friday evening.

“They had beat him to a pulp. He had bruises all over,” she said.

“His head was swollen like a watermelon. His neck was busting because of the swelling. They broke his neck. His nose was like an S. They actually just beat the crap out of him, so when I saw him, I knew my son was gone. Even if he did live he would have been a vegetable.”

Wells said she hadn’t been able to bring herself to watch the video, which she said she’d been told was “horrific”.

“The humanity of it all. Where was the humanity? They beat my son like a pi ñata,” she said.
Breaking down in tears, she said she could not understand why the officers acted so violently to her son, who was not armed – a level of aggression that the Memphis police chief, Cerelyn “CJ” Davis, conceded to CNN was “unexplainable”.

“He had Crohn’s disease, he had surgery in 2013. My son weighed a buck fifty [150lb], he was 6ft 3in,” Wells said.

“And those men, if you combine their weights, it was over a thousand pounds beating and beating a 150ld person to death. Because that’s what they did, they beat my son to death.

The five police officers are all Black and young, about the same age as Nichols, ranging in age from 24 to 32 with the most senior of them having just five years experience. They have all been charged with murder and several other police and EMTs who were on the scene are being investigated for their actions or lack of them.

What is odd is that they were all wearing bodycams which is where the videos came from. So either they thought that what they were doing was acceptable police behavior or they did not care or in the heat of the moment forgot that they were recording themselves.

There will be the usual defenders of the police who will claim that these police officers were rotten apples and that such behavior is rare. They will be right in a statistical sense. They are aberrations in that these kinds of things are done by just a few police officers. But even that number is too many. It is the toxic police culture of intimidation and violence that enables the few to act in this way. It seems like the police feel that people, especially people who are poor and minorities, need to immediately acquiesce and grovel before them and that anything less than that constitutes an act of lese majeste that requires them to be punished to teach them how to show proper respect. Then once the beat down starts, the adrenaline and the rush of power kick in to escalate the violence, fueled by each one feeding off the actions of the others.

This article discusses some of the reasons behind this kind of behavior.

As Lauren Bonds, the executive director of the National Police Accountability Project, told Vox in an interview Friday, “so many of the high-profile police killings that we’ve seen in recent years have started out as a traffic stop — started out as an expired tag, reckless driving, fines or warrants due.”

“One thing I’d say about the murder of Tyre in particular is that these officers were all part of a specific unit that was essentially designed to engage in, more or less, broken-windows policing, enforcing low-level offenses in order to identify higher-level crimes,” Bonds said.

Ultimately, Bonds said, the race of those carrying out the violence is incidental.

“It’s systemic, and it’s ultimately state violence, which doesn’t really have a color except for the color of the people who are in power in this country,” she said. “So to say that there are no racial implications because there’s a Black victim and Black officers involved is a really myopic way of looking at the problem.”

Black Americans are often taught — at home, through personal experience, and by the news — to see encounters with police, particularly traffic stops, as dangerous, if not potentially fatal.

The deaths of Americans like Nichols, or Daunte Wright, Sandra Bland, and Rayshard Brooks, validate that teaching. But it’s not just Black civilians who learn to fear traffic stops. As University of Arizona law professor Jordan Blair Woods wrote for the Michigan Law Review, police are taught to view stops as dangerous as well — not for those they’re stopping, but for themselves and their colleagues.

“Police academies regularly show officer trainees videos of the most extreme cases of violence against officers during routine traffic stops in order to stress that mundane police work can quickly turn into a deadly situation if they become complacent on the scene or hesitate to use force,” Woods wrote.

That training belies the fact that police officers are rarely injured in traffic stops. In Woods’s analysis of Florida traffic stop data from 2005 to 2014, the professor finds police had a 1 in 6.5 million chance of being killed during a traffic stop, and a 1 in 361,111 chance of being seriously injured. Overall, more than 98 percent of stops saw zero or minor injury to officers.

As Baumgartner wrote, “officers are trained to use traffic stops as a general enforcement strategy aimed at reducing violent crime or drug trafficking. When officers are serving these broader goals, they are making an investigatory stop, and these stops have little (if anything) to do with traffic safety and everything to do with who looks suspicious.”

If Black drivers are seen as more suspicious and police are trained to view traffic stops as dangerous in general, this creates a serious problem. When a Black driver is stopped, the interaction is more likely to begin with the officer even more on guard for trouble than they might otherwise be.

This can lead to the kind of rapid escalation seen in Nichols’s case, in which officers ended the stop through violence. Some officers favor beginning with violence, perhaps out of fear, like during the encounter that ended George Floyd’s life. Body camera footage released during Chauvin’s trial, for example, shows an officer drawing his weapon shortly after approaching Floyd’s vehicle and yelling at him to “Put your fucking hands up right now.”

These tactics, as well as the fear and bias that fuel them, put Black drivers in mortal danger. Law enforcement representatives have argued the stops are necessary — “we find drugs, evidence of other crimes … it’s a very valuable tool,” Kevin Lawrence, the Texas Municipal Police Association’s executive director, told the Pew Charitable Trusts in 2020 — but those discoveries are rare. Nationally, about 4 percent of stops resulted in searches or arrests in 2015, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

This has a number of activists and elected officials questioning whether the risks traffic stops pose to drivers — particularly Black drivers — are worth such a small number of arrests.

This has resulted in calls for police to greatly reduce the number of traffic stops unless there is a threat to safety.

Some police departments have also taken steps to address inequitable and sometimes deadly traffic stops. Berkeley, California, for instance, approved a plan in 2021 to prohibit officers from conducting traffic stops for violations that have nothing to do with safety; Oakland has a similar policy in place. Other places, including Montgomery County, Maryland, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, have contemplated such measures as well. Washington, DC, stripped its police department of some of its authority to regulate traffic laws in 2019, empowering its transportation department to do enforcement instead. New York’s attorney general has recommended New York City make a similar change, and in 2022, New York City police announced they’d no longer use stops to randomly check for open warrants.

The long-term effectiveness of such measures remains to be seen. But they represent a small step away from the kind of policing that left Nichols, and so many before him, dead.

One thing the article does not address is the need to curb the enormous power that police unions have and how they use that power to protect those officers who are prone to excessive violence and who really have no business being police officers.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    They were wearing cameras.

    They did it anyway. Possible explanations:
    1. Literally unbelievably stupid
    2. Confident they weren’t doing anything that would have any repercussions, even after George Floyd.
    3. Er…
    4. That’s it.

    Either possibility is absolutely terrifying. Large, heavily armed men patrolling in groups…

  2. Muscadin says

    (To Mano Singham: Sorry, I don’t know why my original handle/email is being blocked -- I can repeat it if that helps)

  3. Mano Singham says


    Sorry for the glitch. I do not know why it happened so please repeat. Thanks!

  4. Muscadin says

    Thanks -- I was originally replying to #1

    There’s a third possibility, or at least an addendum to #2 … they want the footage of their attacks as a trophy.
    Kentucky GOP Club Blares Footage Related to Breonna Taylor’s Death …
    The Republican Women’s Club of South Central Kentucky held an event with one of the cops in the raid that killed Breonna Taylor. Diners unaffiliated with the event heard and saw graphic descriptions of the raid as they ate.

  5. khms says

    It might help to always do traffic stops with at least two officers, only one of which approaches the vehicle. The increase in safety might temper the officer’s hair trigger. Or it may not, as they’ve been conditioned too much for the opposite. Who knows?
    Also, massively expand training, and strongly feature de-escalation. Oh, and a nationwide database of police fired for bad behavior, to keep them from just getting a job the next county over, might also help. And I suspect none of those would be fast -- it takes time for culture to change.

  6. sonofrojblake says

    @khms, 6:
    Why would the police allow any of that? It sounds like hard work that wouldn’t benefit them (only the public) so they’ve no reason to permit it to happen. It’s not as if anyone has the power to make them do something they don’t want to.

  7. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    IMO, a simple fix is this. Bring back the requirement that search warrants must name the places that can be searched and seized and bring the same requirement to the implied scope of warrantless searches like traffic stops. Basically, overturn Marron v United States.
    In other words, get rid of the “in plain sight” exception.

    My basic idea is that if you get pulled over for a broken taillight, then the traffic stop search is limited to the scope of that initial stop, meaning that if they find drugs or guns or a dead body in the back seat, then the evidence must be excluded according to the exclusionary rule.

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