When I started engaging in public scholarship, I found myself frequently writing about police brutality against the Black community. My first op-ed was in response to the shooting death of Michael Brown. I wrote about why the Black community’s mistrust of the police was rational and justified. However, after writing so many op-eds about police brutality, I vowed not to write anymore because I said everything there was to be said.
My stance has changed after the murder of Tyre Nichols at the hands of five Black police officers, which has once again reignited the nation’s attention on police brutality against the Black community.
As the details of Tyre’s horrific beating unfold, much attention is being placed on the fact that all five police officers are Black. What was the mentality behind their actions? What motivated them to act with such a callous disregard for Tyre’s life? Ultimately the race of the officers is not important and should not be the focus of this violent act. A young man’s life was violently taken. Parents lost a son. And a family’s life has forever been changed.
It would be disingenuous to say that race does not matter. As much as we want to believe that it does not or should not matter, race does matter. As a Black psychologist, I have been very vocal about the psychological effects of police brutality perpetrated by White police officers against Black people. This narrative has often focused on how implicit bias is the cause of White police violence against Black and other minoritized people.
However, I am also concerned about the psychological effects of police brutality perpetrated by Black police officers against Black people. What is the psychological impact of seeing a video of someone who could be your son, brother, father, or uncle beating someone who could be your son, brother, father, or uncle to death?
Clearly, Black police officers are not immune from the effects of implicit bias, even against members of their own community. This observation was pointed out by a former Black NYPD Lieutenant on CNN. Like many in the Black community, I want to understand how these Black police officers could engage in the act of violence against a Black man so brutal that it conjures up memories of the beating suffered by Emmet Till at the hands of racist White supremacists.
It would be difficult to engage in the level of beating administered by these officers if they saw themselves reflected in Tyre or felt some connection to him (e.g., having a shared lived experience as a Black man). Black psychologists such as Wade Nobles have theorized that African Americans have an extended sense of self which is a conception of self that goes beyond the individual and includes connectedness to one’s ethnic group and community. Stated another way, as a member of the Black community, one should feel responsible for the welfare and well-being of Black people.
In some instances, the culture of institutions such as law enforcement can disrupt or degrade this extended self to the point where Black police officers no longer identify with the communities from which they come. Many Black psychologists would argue that it is not healthy for Black people to have an individualistic sense of self that psychologically disconnects them from other members of the Black community.
The call for community policing by many in the Black community assumes that Black police officers feel connected and have a sense of responsibility to the Black community. History has shown us that skin color alone is an insufficient barometer of connectedness to Black people. This is why Black people often say, “All skin folks ain’t kin folks.” In this case, the officers’ identities were more about being police officers than about being Black men.
Let’s be clear that just because the police officers are Black does not mean that institutional racism was not involved. One of the lessons we should learn from this is that Black people can be pawns in the perpetuation of institutional racism. This is one of the reasons why focusing on individual acts of racism is an insufficient intervention for ending anti-Black racism. Racism is embedded in institutional culture, policies, and practices. It was acceptable to all five officers to brutalize Tyre and to the other officers who were privy to their actions. This speaks to the culture of policing that is all too prevalent in many police departments.
It is hard to imagine that these officers would have beaten a white man to death in similar circumstances. Keep in mind that these officers were part of the SCORPION (Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods) Unit assigned to address a surge of street crime in Memphis. One wonders if, at some level, they had become desensitized to violence and internalized stereotypes of Black males as being criminal and dangerous.
To the credit of the Memphis Police Department, there was swift and decisive action with the firing of the five police officers. However, we also know that the impact of institutional racism goes well beyond the actions of these five officers. Questions remain about the lack of responsiveness of firefighters and the quality of care received from paramedics who allegedly did not act with a sense of urgency to assist Tyre.
Impact on the Black Community
Psychologists need to understand that every news story of police violence against a Black person results in a vicarious trauma experienced collectively among Black people. As I listened to the mother of Tyre talk about what happened to her son and described the level of physical trauma that he endured, I found myself becoming extremely emotional. Her son, whom she characterized as a “mama’s boy,” was not a physically imposing individual, weighing only approximately 150 pounds compared to officers whose combined weight exceeded 1000 pounds.
No mother or father should ever have to endure what Tyre’s parents are going through now. They are not alone, as Black families must once again have “the talk” with their Black male children. The talk will be complicated by the fact that the police officers were Black.
The reality is that we can no longer assume that the presence of Black officers will reduce the likelihood of police brutality in the Black community. If community policing is going to be successful in building trust between Black people and the police, Black police officers must have a different mindset than that which is too often promoted in the culture of police departments.