Does Police Accountability Only Apply When the Officers are Men of Color?

In yet another showing of the failures of our policing system, a young Black father was murdered by police officers during an incident at a traffic stop. According to National Public Radio, the victim, Tyre Nichols, was beaten severely by multiple police officers after being pulled over for alleged reckless driving on Saturday, Jan. 7. He died three days later in the hospital. As of Saturday, Feb. 4, six officers have been fired from the Memphis Police Department in connection with his death, and five officers have been charged with second-degree murder.

While any instance of police brutality and the loss of an innocent man’s life is enough to make you want to tear the whole system apart, it is certainly interesting to note the quick pace of the indictment of these officers compared to similar cases. For example, according to AP News, in the case of the police murder of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old Black child, the officer involved was not indicted after a trial that went on for over a year. For me, the difference in these cases is clear. The officer who murdered Tamir was white, and the officers who were charged with the death of Tyre were Black.

Maybe the system is finally dealing with the deeply entrenched issues in our criminal justice system. Perhaps the quick pace of this indictment is a positive sign for those who care about protecting Black lives and justice in our policing system. However, the contrast between this brutal murder and all those that came before it is striking and difficult to ignore.

These officers should, without a doubt, be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law, and it is encouraging that such quick action was taken. But one can’t help but wonder what would have been done differently had the officers been white. In the cases of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald, Breonna Taylor, and Jordan Edwards, to name a few, the officers were all white men and all of them were either free of charges or charged years after the murder.

The swift actions of the Memphis Police Department should be applauded, but the gaping inadequacy of our justice system cannot be overlooked. Four of the five officers who were charged had previously been reprimanded for noncompliance with the department’s policies regarding the use of force among other policies. According to National Public Radio, the four officers were previously “reprimanded or suspended earlier for their failure to report when they used physical force, failure to report a domestic dispute, or for damages sustained to their squad cruisers, according to the files from Memphis police.”

As another innocent person has been murdered by those who are supposed to protect us, swift action is a sign of progress. However, it is unfortunate that the progress only seems to be swift when taking action against officers of color. It is time the government takes seriously the inadequacies of our policing system, and maybe we can start with harsher punishments for officers who have a history of violence on the job, such as the officers charged here. Maybe if the city of Memphis had taken these instances of misconduct more seriously, Tyre Nichols would still be alive. While this is, unfortunately, not likely to be the last case of egregious police brutality in our country, we offered the chance to see if this instance is truly a step in the right direction, or if this prompt action only applies when punishing officers of color.