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Calls for Police Reform Following the Death of Tyre Nichols

By Dr. Chuck Russo, Department Chair, Criminal Justice and
DC Rand, Department Chair, Public Administration and Security Management

On Jan. 26, five now-former Memphis police officers were each charged with second-degree murder, aggravated kidnapping, aggravated assault, official oppression and official misconduct in connection with the death of Tyre Nichols, according to AP News. This incident has led to calls for nationwide police reform.

Like many people, we have viewed the video footage of the incident via several media outlets, and what we saw was highly troubling. The video displayed little resemblance to the training and tactics the vast majority of law enforcement professionals receive and practice each and every day.

In addition, the video depicts officers engaging in behavior that contradicts professional practices and shocks the conscience. Unfortunately, it is the actions of these few officers who make it more difficult for good officers to do their jobs.

As the public dialogue surrounding this incident evolves, we expect two areas to come into focus: hiring standards and training.

[Related article: Police Reform: Part of a Larger Issue with US Society?]

The Detrimental Effects of Lowered Hiring Standards

Within the last decade, many agencies have lowered hiring standards for employment. Typically, the reasons given for this change in hiring standards includes an effort to improve the diversity of the applicant pool and a need to increase the number of applicants to fill staffing shortages.

History shows us that when agencies lower hiring standards or have flaws in their hiring practices, there is a long-term cost even while short-term goals may be achieved. Examples include:

It often takes only a few years before the light begins to shine on officers who probably shouldn’t have been hired in the first place. Our personal experience demonstrates that the internal affairs complaints start to ramp up with such individuals, and those complaints can evolve into criminal complaints as well.

Police Reform Means Implementing a Change in Training Standards

A critical eye will also turn to the training of the Memphis Police Department and specifically the training given to these five former police officers. Across the United States, it appears far too many agency administrators see training as a cost and not a resource.

It definitely costs money to properly train officers. For instance, money is needed to get the officer to a training course and to get someone else to fill that officer’s spot when he or she is in training. As a result, a training budget seems to be trimmed early when a law enforcement agency is trying to reduce expenses.

However, investing money in proper police training can save law enforcement agencies substantial sums of money in the long run. When proper training occurs, officers do the right thing at the right time, and an agency can defend the officer’s action.

But with improper training or no training, an officer may not take the right course of action when necessary. Even if the officer does the right thing, an agency may not be able to defend the officer’s action.

Improper action due to a lack of training has a heavy cost for law enforcement agencies in terms of lawsuits, public opinion and public support. Until agency administrators see training as a cost-savings resource and an area where they can actually get a positive return on their dollars, agencies, officers, and the public will suffer.

Why Education Standards Must Be Part of Police Reform

There have already been several calls for police reform in response to this incident, according to the New York Post. So far, the focus of the proposed reform is on police training and mental health evaluation for officers, but that already occurs during the hiring process for many U.S. law enforcement agencies.

Unfortunately, one item lacking in the calls for police reform is a college degree requirement for future law enforcement officers. According to Michael Aamodt of Police Executive Research Forum, studies have demonstrated that better-educated officers are less likely to use force than their less-educated colleagues. Police Quarterly also published a similar study about the effect of higher education on police officers.

Regarding firearms, officers who have a college degree have been shown to be 41% less likely to discharge their firearms compared to officers with no college degree, according to a study published in Criminal Justice and Behavior.  

We must remember that in the pursuit of a college degree, a student learns critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills. These skills are vitally important for officers working the street and engaging with people to learn.

Also, discretion and the ability to decide what action should be taken in a particular situation often plays a huge role in officer-public interactions; such skills are critical for officers to acquire. Because a law enforcement agency’s policy manual can only cover so much, it is up to the officers and their knowledge, skills, and abilities to successfully resolve encounters with the public.

Police Reform Requires a Multifaceted Approach

If there is to be true police reform, a multifaceted approach is required. For instance, hiring standards must be raised and not lowered. With so much potential negative publicity and lawsuits on the line, we must not “settle” for whoever is willing to walk through the door, wanting to become a police officer. We simply cannot afford that attitude as it can be a matter of life or death.

Law enforcement agencies must seek out and employ only the best and brightest of police officers. Staffing shortages may need to be overcome by the implementation of new and emerging technologies as “force multipliers,” allowing agencies to do the same or more work with less personnel.

In addition, training must be viewed as an investment and not a cost. We know this incident will cost the City of Memphis and the Memphis Police Department a small fortune. If those funds were instead diverted to training, could this incident have been avoided?

And hand-in-hand with training, agencies must require officers earn a college degree. Educated officers are often better officers.

Once this police reform occurs, we will hopefully see fewer incidents in the future.

About the Authors

 Dr. Chuck Russo is the Department Chair of criminal justice at the University and the United Nations Representative for the International Police Executive Symposium (IPES). He began his career in law enforcement in 1987 in Central Florida and was involved all areas of patrol, training, special operations, and investigations before retiring from law enforcement in 2013. Dr. Russo continues to design and instruct courses, as well as act as a consultant for education, government, and industry throughout the world. His recent research and presentations focus on emerging technology and law enforcement applications, officer hiring and retention, post-traumatic stress, agency response to officer suicide, human trafficking, nongovernment intelligence actors, and online learning.

D.C. Rand is the Department Chair of public administration and security management at the University. He began his law enforcement career with the United States Air Force, first as a Security Policeman and then as a Special Agent with the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations. After retiring from active duty, he began the next phase of his professional career first as an Internal Investigator with the TJX Companies and then with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts rising to the position of Training Manager with the Massachusetts State Police-Commonwealth Fusion Center.

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