How the murder of Tyre Nichols is influencing policing in America

Feb. 15, 2023, 1:35 p.m. ·

University of Nebraska at Omaha Distinguished Associate Professor School of Criminology and Criminal Justice Dr. Justin Nix (Photo courtesy of Dr. Justin NIx)

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Editor's note: The following transcript has been edited for clarity.

William Padmore: I'm going to start off with kind of a big question. How has policing changed in Nebraska and the nation since the increased scrutiny of policing- I'm thinking specifically around the George Floyd protests of 2020?

Justin Nix: Well, speaking for Omaha, I know that (Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer) and (Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert) came out not long after the George Floyd killing and said that they were going to, for example, change the policy to require officers to intervene when they observe officers using inappropriate force, to increase training around things like mental health and de-escalation, and to ban chokeholds. These are similar policies that other agencies around the country have adopted, and some already had such policies in place. But I would say those sorts of policy tweaks, as well as the continued diffusion of body-worn cameras across agencies in the U.S., I think, are some of the major changes that you could point to.

Padmore: Generally, how do departments respond when they face the increased scrutiny when incidents like this happen-both from the state and federal level?

Nix: There's evidence going all the way back to the 60s that the police culture causes officers to lay low when they face increased scrutiny from the public or even from supervisors. So, there's an argument that has popped up again, since Ferguson- the "Ferguson Effect" - that officers will pull back and not be as proactive or as rigorous or aggressive in their day-to-day activities as they might have been before the scrutiny. And, again, it's a way of laying low and staying out of trouble, so there's evidence of that. But there's also evidence that agencies are willing to go in and revisit old policies and make modifications in response to public pressure.

Padmore: When things like this happen, is it natural that low morale will permeate through the department? Or is policing in a general state of low morale right now, not necessarily caused by the headlines?

Nix: I would say it's natural, but not necessarily inevitable. Certainly, police over the last few years, feel like their profession is maybe more misunderstood than it ever has been. And they feel like the actions of a few bad actors are being used to paint with a broad brush. What happened in Minneapolis, or what happened more recently in Memphis isn't true of everyone in the profession but that's the way it feels like when they see the way the public treats them, or the way that policing gets discussed on TV or in the news. But it's clear that when leaders, when police chiefs, or when city leaders defend good policing, when they don't throw officers under the bus, when they treat officers — in officers' minds — when those folks in those positions treat them fairly, that can go a long way to maintaining morale.

Padmore: Are we in a special moment right now? Of course, incidents of police brutality have a long and storied past in this nation, but it seems like people are paying more attention — both on the state, local and federal level — to how policing will evolve in the future. Or is this just a continuation of some of the things we've seen?

Nix: I'm glad you asked that question because I think about this a lot... I think sometimes we risk being prisoner of the moment. It can feel like these are unprecedented times. But what I will say is that we've kept our eye on the ball this time, more so than in the past. Every 30 years or so we have a national task force on policing in the criminal justice system going back to Wickersham (Commission in 1931). And then LBJ, and then there was a national reckoning after Rodney King, right? What was new there is that it was caught on film. But what's new, starting with Ferguson, and, to some extent, Eric Garner up in New York around the same time - the advent of social media and the viral video or the viral tweet has led to the growth of groups like Black Lives Matter and other watchdog groups. The federal government has failed to put together a national database on police killings. They haven't been able to get the job done. Private citizens and former journalists step up and make the databases on their own right. So, we've got better data now and we've got more people who that's their thing. They're paying attention and they're trying to hold governments accountable. Now it's more fashionable to have our eyes on the budget. How much are cities spending on policing and other services? So, there's been more staying power, I think, and I'm hopeful that will mean positive change, but, you know, time will tell.