Even before second-degree murder charges were filed against each of the five officers accused in the beating of Tyre Nichols, local elected officials were floating proposals including tracking police traffic stops and an increased training package floated several years ago that was not acted on.
Editor’s Note: This report comes from the Daily Memphian, a peer and partner of Lookout’s, which operates the largest newsroom in Memphis. Lookout brings you this coverage — this on-the-ground, local reporting — to help our readers better understand the context in the case.
The criminal charges are filed. The police video has been released. But there is much more discussion and debate to come about what the fatal police beating of Tyre Nichols says about police policies and the role of Memphis Police officers in a changing criminal justice system.
That discussion has been an enduring part of a new generation of activism in the city that began in 2014 with the city’s first Black Lives Matter protest at the National Civil Rights Museum.
The Nichols case was the dominant topic of conversation in a reporters’ roundtable discussion on the WKNO Channel 10 program “Behind The Headlines.”
The discussion featured Karanja Ajanaku of The New Tri-State Defender, Julia Baker of The Daily Memphian and Toby Sells of The Memphis Flyer.
“Behind The Headlines,” hosted by The Daily Memphian CEO Eric Barnes, airs on WKNO-TV Fridays at 7 p.m. and Sundays at 8:30 a.m. Watch the show now via the video link in this article or listen to the podcast version, which includes extended conversation.
Even before second-degree murder charges were filed against each of the five officers accused in the beating of Nichols, local elected officials were floating proposals including tracking police traffic stops and an increased training package floated several years ago that was not acted on.
The May 2020 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody prompted some of the proposals now being resurrected.
Floyd’s death had an enormous impact in Memphis — a city that already had a considerable push for criminal justice reform underway.
It was part of a new wave and new generation of activism in the city that saw activists getting involved in the retail politics of running for local offices.
The local reaction to Floyd’s death became about reform beyond 12 consecutive days of peaceful protest in which Memphis Police arrested more than 100 protesters.
Among those arrested were leaders of several nonprofit organizations involved in the reform calls.
The aggressive response of police to the protests heightened frustration especially after then-police director Michael Rallings took the position that the police presence was there to protect protesters.
Rallings’ relationship with protesters began in 2016 with the shutdown of the Hernando DeSoto Bridge during a demonstration over the Memphis Police shooting death of Darrius Stewart and other similar incidents nationwide.
Rallings’ reaction to the protestors’ bridge takeover was deemed by a federal judge to be in violation of a 40-year-old federal court consent decree specifically forbidding “political surveillance” by Memphis Police.
The surveillance included an officer posing as a protester on social media and intelligence reports noting gatherings.
The George Floyd incident also led to the Memphis City Council ultimately scrapping plans to allow police officers to live outside of Shelby County. Since then, the residency requirement has been lifted by state law.
By 2022, the county elections became about criminal justice reform with races for District Attorney and Juvenile Court Judge the top contests on the ballot.
In each case the incumbents were defeated by candidates who specifically campaigned on reform platforms.