In what ways has Tyre Nichols’ death re-sparked systemic reform?

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Race relations in America and the ongoing feud between police and minority communities have become a staple of American culture and have continued their differences into the 21st century.

During this time, however, larger sectors of the current generation have mobilized in order to vocalize their frustrations with systemic racism and police brutality.

The recent death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of Memphis police has again sparked the national conversation around the issue of police brutality and whether enough is being said or done about the issue at hand.

“George Floyd’s murder in 2020 catalyzed that conversation, leading to large-scale public protests, but many, many instances preceded that moment and have come after it.” said Dr. Robert Futrell, a sociology professor at UNLV.

“This is a complicated problem, but critics argue that violence is endemic to policing, an experience that is very familiar to marginalized communities in the U.S. I suppose what’s surprising to some observers is that both the attackers and the victim were Black, which points back to the endemic violence argument,” Futrell continued. 

Systemic reform has become a rallying cry for the last two years, following the death of George Floyd in 2020. Left unchecked, those in positions of power or authority can engage in practices viewed as unethical if silence is the choice of societal response. More can, and should, be done to address the nature of police brutality and fight off forces of authoritative evil.

In the current report, Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old man from Memphis, Tennessee, was pulled over by police on Jan. 7, 2023, for reckless driving. After a short case, police proceeded to pepper spray and taser him. For the next three minutes, the five officers proceed to punch, kick, and strike him on the back with batons. Reminiscent of Rodney King, back in 1991, Nichols was sent to the hospital where he passed away three days later.

So far, the decade has proven to be an era filled with police-related corruption and excessive force. According to a Pew Research Center survey, roughly 47% of Americans believe that police are doing an excellent job; down 11 percentage points lower than three years ago. Public perception about police brutality and attitudes toward minorities has been the subject of conflict in the past year and the recent death of Tyre Nichols has reignited advocacy for better police reform.

“I think a first step is for departments to acknowledge that systematic police brutality goes beyond a ‘bad apple’ explanation, that there are just a few bad apples [people] and when we get rid of them, we fix the problem. That’s an easy explanation, but like most of the 21st century, life is more complicated,” Futrell said. “I do think this realization is gaining momentum, and some departments are starting to employ very different strategies, such as deploying response teams to some calls for service that might include social service and mental health workers, rather than just officers trained in policing.”

According to a 2022 Gallup poll, 72% of Black adults would like to see major changes in policing, with 54% of Hispanic adults sharing a similar sentiment. With such metrics in mind, I think a viable strategy to address this area of social concern is to institute certain aspects of police departments to specific citations. Perhaps sending cops to every situation is not the most ideal solution. Unarmed social workers can also be of assistance in certain situations, and may provide a less intimidating environment for the affected party.

Systemic reform can also be rightfully achieved based on the concept of checking unchecked power. Yearly vetting procedures and tests on police officers can help gauge whether current officers are proficient in handling certain scenarios and whether or not they should be patrolling the streets.

With all this in mind, at the end of the day, what can we UNLV students do?

Students should go out and make their voices heard. Attend public protests and hold those in favor of injustices accountable.

“Call out injustices of all types, talk to one another about these issues, and ask what do I think about big issues like justice, race relations, economic inequalities, what kind of world do I want to live in – violent, authoritarian, fearful, or peaceful, inclusionary, and just. From there you can think about what kinds of policies I support and how I can advocate for those,” Futrell said. “Our system requires thoughtful, learned, courageous civil minded citizens to engage with the big issue we face. In fact, helping to create exactly this type of citizen is the university mission. It’s a tough one though. We need to fight indifference and distraction, and embrace our role as citizens to shape the world we want to see.”

As a whole, police brutality is an unfortunate reality for a lot of minorities in this country, but with collective activism, it can be properly diagnosed and treated.

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