Now Comes the Hard Part in Memphis

On Sunday morning, the Reverend Earle Fisher was trying to keep his sermon toned down. He’s the pastor at Abyssinian Baptist, but he was guest-preaching at the more buttoned-down Trinity Christian Methodist Episcopal. The thing is that low-energy Earle Fisher still outpaces most ministers at their most fervid, and this was no typical Sunday.

Fisher, one of Memphis’s most prominent criminal-justice activists, was preaching just two days after the release of video footage of the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols by five police officers. In conversation, Fisher speaks calmly and with precise control, but in the pulpit, he was animated as he connected a short passage in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus heals a blind man to the present day with the help of thunderous crescendos and subito pianos.

First, he critiqued the apparently benevolent bystanders who brought the man to Jesus. “The crowd is not asking some very appropriate social, political, and critical questions,” Fisher said. They ask Jesus to “heal some symptoms but not challenge the system … The crowd does not ask, ‘Why are there so many sick people?’”

But Fisher added, “The text is also teaching us that you’ve got to recognize progress when prompted.” Despite being miraculously healed, the blind man’s first reaction is to say that his sight is dim. Only then does Jesus restore his vision fully.

[David A. Graham: The murders in Memphis aren’t stopping]

“A system of impatience and impulsivity and insensitivity has its grips on us even when we are walking with God and God is working on us and through us,” Fisher said. “We know that this man is still stained by the system of social injustice, because he’s trying to focus on the negative. He did not recognize progress when prompted.”

Punctuating the point with his hands, Fisher reached a conclusion: “We might not be all we want to be”—clap, clap, clap—“we might not be all we need to, but I thank God we ain’t what we used to be.”

Fisher speaks for many in the Memphis community. They celebrate the quick moves to fire the officers who beat Nichols, to charge them with murder, and to disband the specialized team of which they were a part. Nichols’s death is part of a long-running pattern, and they worry about whether policing in Memphis can and will change more fundamentally. Ben Crump, the nationally renowned civil-rights lawyer representing the Nichols family, has called the official response a “blueprint” for other cities dealing with police killings. But Memphians don’t want a blueprint for future responses. They want the killings to stop.

“That was the most brutal murder that we've ever seen in our lifetimes by the police,” the activist LJ Abraham told me. “It’s going to force a lot of things, not just in Memphis but across the country, to change when it comes to policing—that’s my hope. I can’t say that it will, but that’s my hope.”

[David A. Graham: Memphis’s policing strategy was bound to end in tragedy]

As Abraham points out, Memphis’s challenge is the nation’s. The United States has made slow but noticeable progress in recent years on punishing officers who brutalize citizens, but whether any progress has been made on preventing such incidents is not yet clear. Individual prosecutions can serve as a deterrent, but many police departments—including Memphis’s—have problems that run deeper than the “a few bad apples” cliché.

I spent a lot of time in 2021 and 2022 reporting on policing in Memphis. The city presented a somewhat exaggerated version of the dynamic facing many American cities: Since the rise of Black Lives Matter, activists had been pressing for reform of the troubled police department, yet starting in 2020, Memphis also saw a sharp rise in violent crime, including murder. The result was a city that was both underpoliced and overpoliced. Memphians, especially Black ones, complained of rampant crime and unchecked gang violence, and they didn’t want to defund the police. But they also reported that officers were focused on rinky-dink arrests and pretextual stops instead of violent crime, and feared that they or their family members would be brutalized by police—a fear that Nichols’s death chillingly validates.

The city’s leadership seemed to have no good ideas about solving the problem. Mayor Jim Strickland, a cautious, business-friendly Clinton Democrat, had run on a tough-on-crime platform and promised to grow the police force. In 2021, he handpicked C. J. Davis, the chief of police in Durham, North Carolina, to become the first Black woman to lead the Memphis Police Department. One of Davis’s first moves was to launch the SCORPION unit, a specialized team that focused on policing high-crime areas. But crime continued to rise, and recruitment for the department was slow, despite lower entrance requirements. Neither Strickland nor Davis, nor anyone else from the mayor’s office or police department, would speak with me to explain or defend their record.

The way that Memphis, Shelby County, and Tennessee officials have responded to Nichols’s death really has been unusual. Davis quickly fired five officers involved and spoke passionately about her horror at the footage. Another two officers have now been suspended, along with two sheriff’s deputies; three firefighters who attended to Nichols at the scene have also been fired. The state bureau of investigation quickly conducted a probe, and District Attorney Steve Mulroy charged the five fired officers with second-degree murder. The city pledged to release footage promptly and then did so. Davis dissolved the SCORPION team, to which the five officers belonged. That swift, decisive response is a big contrast from the way Memphis and other cities have handled such incidents in the past.

[David A. Graham: Inhumanity in Memphis]

Those quick and decisive moves may have driven national coverage of the story, but they also helped soothe the pain and anger in Memphis. Last Friday, shortly after the videos were released, protesters blocked an interstate-highway bridge over the Mississippi River, but the march remained calm. Demonstrations continued over the following days, but they stayed peaceful. The peaceful protests, like the swift official response, are testaments to the city’s seasoned, disciplined activist community. In my reporting over the past couple of years, I found that advocates had little real effect on policy in Memphis, especially amid rising violent crime, but I may have underestimated them. They were here before Ben Crump and Al Sharpton came to town, and they’ll be here when those men leave. Their organizing work is manifest in the city’s quick action, and marchers on Saturday were triumphant if a bit surprised.

“This ain’t gonna be a repeat of 2020,” Amber Sherman, a community organizer, vowed at a protest. She said protesters would maintain pressure on officials to institute major changes.

Yet the immediate response is also the easy part—especially with an incident as nauseating and apparently clear-cut as this one. Last Friday, Strickland said he was waiting for an external review to determine whether Nichols’s death was a failure of training or culture. But many observers have already made up their mind on that question.

[Juliette Kayyem: Why Memphis is different]

“There was no fear that the cameras or anything would cost them,” Rosalyn Nichols, a minister and the president of Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope (and no relation to Tyre), told me. “For me as a citizen, looking at that, it says that something inside of policing gave them some idea that this was not going to blow back on them. That’s got to be deep inside of you. That’s not something that one day five of them just decided to do.”

The five officers charged are all Black, which some skeptics have argued shows that race was not a factor. But that doesn’t convince many people in Memphis, where the composition of the police force (58 percent Black) roughly reflects that of the population (64 percent Black), and where police violence has long been a presence anyway. A system that allows Black residents to be disproportionately brutalized is a racist system, no matter the race of the officers, they say. “It ain’t the color; it’s the culture,” Bishop Marvin Frank Thomas Sr. said at Trinity CME on Sunday morning.

Buddy Chapman is no bleeding-heart liberal activist. He led the Memphis police from 1976 to 1983, and is now the executive director of the nonprofit CrimeStoppers. But Chapman is furious about Nichols’s death. “How on earth could any police officer think it’s okay to jerk a guy out of his car and beat the shit out of him? How come they would think that? Where did we fall down?” he asked me. He, too, sees something wrong in the department’s culture, scoffing at the bellicose name of the SCORPION unit. (As Fisher pointed out in his sermon, you don’t have to think too hard to realize that a scorpion is a nocturnal predator.) “Police will never fully address crime if their method is to be meaner than the criminals they face,” Chapman told me.

That isn’t to say that training and procedures aren’t a problem. Strickland and Davis have focused their energy on hiring more officers (with minimal success) and have lowered requirements to join. Of the men charged in Nichols’s death, only one had been in the department for more than five years—not much experience for officers in what was supposed to be a marquee crime-fighting initiative. Asked about training and selection for the unit, a police spokesperson replied only, “All MPD specialized units are comprised of officers who are current MPD officers.”

[Read: How Memphis policing strategy went so wrong]

Especially with units, such as SCORPION, that use a zero-tolerance approach, “you gotta have officers who know how not to get carried away with these powers,” Chapman told me. As he watched the videos the city released, he waited for a commanding officer to speak up on the radio or show up on the scene. It never happened. “They picked the wrong people, and they didn’t supervise them closely.”

News that the unit would be disbanded broke in the midst of a rally on Saturday in downtown Memphis, near the main police station and 201 Poplar, the notorious county jail. A march leader read the press release into a megaphone, and the crowd whooped. But someone immediately started shouting that the city would just wait until things cooled off and rebrand the team, a suspicion widely shared in the city. Another said that getting rid of SCORPION wasn’t enough and that the city needed to disband its Organized Crime Unit altogether.

In recent years, MPD’s approach to protests like this one has been to contain rather than confront, a change for a department with a long history of illegally surveilling its critics. Police were out in numbers during Saturday’s demonstration, but they stayed in their cars and kept a healthy distance. They also didn’t attempt to prevent marchers from blocking the bridge on Friday. But Hunter Demster, an organizer with Decarcerate Memphis, told me he had been pulled over on the way to Saturday’s protest, which he didn’t think was a coincidence.

As the demonstration wrapped up, someone produced a trumpet and began playing “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” I found JB Smiley Jr., the vice chair of the Memphis City Council, in the crowd. When I’d interviewed Smiley two years ago, he’d sounded like a moderate reformer, dubious of Memphis’s massive spending on public safety and the mayor’s attempt to attract officers by loosening a requirement that they live in the city. Now he struck a more militant note, and told me that something had changed with Nichols’s death. “I don't really like to look at things in terms of problems. I look at things in terms of opportunity,” he said. “I think you have an opportunity to make wholesale change.”

Was Chief Davis up to that challenge? I asked. “Absolutely,” he said. “She will be forced to change. This council will force her. The people will force her.”

[Clint Smith: Tyre Nichols wanted to capture the sunset]

Not everyone is so optimistic. Strickland, the mayor, is a lame duck, leaving office next year because of term limits, and a temperamentally improbable change agent, though policing will likely be a top issue in the race to replace him. (His office did not reply to my request for an interview.)

That puts much of the focus on Davis. (The police department did not respond to my request to interview her, either.) Everyone agrees that she is good at communicating to the public, though often without specificity or concrete commitments to reform. What many observers from across the spectrum also believe, though they are not always willing to say so on the record, is that Davis’s identity was a big factor in her hiring. (Before her stint in Durham, she was deputy chief in Atlanta.)

“[Strickland] hired her with the intention of saying, ‘Oh, look, we hired the first Black female police chief in the city of Memphis in history,’ but he also knew that she was going to be a puppet,” Abraham, the activist, told me.

Critics say that hiring Davis allowed Memphis to appear progressive without having to adopt any particularly fresh approaches to policing—and now that she’s in the job, her identity helps protect her, and by extension the police, from criticism. “Bringing a Black woman in as a police chief, even if you’re doing it for the right reasons, can also cause a bit of a chilling effect on criticism and activism,” Jillian Johnson, a member of Durham’s city council, told me. “People want to give her the benefit of the doubt.”

In Durham, Davis won mostly positive marks just by improving on her disastrous predecessor, who had been fired after a series of scandals. Johnson, an outspoken leftist, said that Davis was eventually willing to embark on reforms, but only when pushed by the very progressive city leadership. As long as Strickland is in office, Davis is unlikely to get that kind of pressure in Memphis. “C. J. Davis has all the right rhetoric,” Demster told me. “She says all the right things, and I believe that she may even mean it to a degree. But she has no power under Mayor Strickland.”

[Sue Rahr: The myth propelling America’s violent police culture]

Davis’s record, meanwhile, shows her doubling down on approaches with dubious records. Until this month, the city was eager to talk about SCORPION as one of her successes. She got the unit up and running just months after arriving in 2021. Three weeks in, the department boasted about the number of arrests it had made, though perhaps it should have been a warning sign that barely a third were for felonies. The idea seemed to have been borrowed from earlier in Davis’s career, in Atlanta, where she’d led a similar team, called REDDOG. (Again with the names.) But as the Daily Memphian has reported, the scandal-ridden REDDOG received many of the same criticisms as SCORPION.

“Nothing changes until people at the top change,” Josh Spickler, the executive director of Just City, a criminal-justice nonprofit, told me. “I don’t think there’s anyone who would argue Jim Strickland or C. J. Davis are ready to significantly overhaul policing in Memphis, Tennessee.”

While I was in Memphis, I visited the spots where Nichols had been stopped and then beaten. They’re almost 15 miles from downtown, well out in the suburbs. If the SCORPION team was looking for a high-crime area, according to the department’s own mapping, they were in the wrong place. The intersection where Nichols was stopped is lonely, with two churches, a middle school, and a trash-choked creek, and the weather was gray and misty, fitting the mood. I followed Nichols’s path running down Ross Road. (“Everyone says, Well, he shouldn’t have run from the police,” Chapman told me. “I think if I’d been able to get up and make a run for it, I would have too!”)

I passed by developments of neat, though worn, tract houses and turned into a brick subdivision; he’d been close to his mother’s house when officers caught up with him. The corner where Nichols had been beaten was mostly deserted. A teddy bear, a Mylar heart balloon, and a few bouquets sat at the foot of a street sign. Someone had removed the Castlegate Lane sign prominently visible in one video the city released. A few journalists milled around, and a drone buzzed above.

Darin Abston Jr. sat on the curb in a plain black caftan, singing “Man in the Mirror.” He told me he’d once been a regular protester, but he’d lost faith in activism and found it in God. “We’ve been protesting for years. What did we get? ‘We got our rights.’ So?” he said, gesturing to the pile of flowers, as if to ask what those rights had done to protect Tyre Nichols. “Forgive the cops. Forgive them. We’re not going to see a change in government. Lean not on your own understanding. Lean on God.”

Just a few hours after the horrifying video of Nichols’s death had been released, I was hearing the case for giving up on earthly justice. The deserted scene amplified the hopelessness. But as I sat on the curb, cars arrived in a slow but constant stream. Their license plates showed they’d come from Memphis or from across the river in Arkansas or from just over the border in Mississippi. Many of the drivers were middle-aged Black women. Some rolled down a window to ask if this was the spot, and three said, by way of explanation for their presence, “I have a son.” Others simply slowed down, wiped a tear away, then turned around and drove off. But they did not seem likely to forget.