What reforms can't fix

The persistence of authoritarian police culture

Police car.
(Image credit: Isabella Pino/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The Memphis cops who kicked and punched the life out of Tyre Nichols had been properly trained. In the "Reimagining Policing" reforms the city adopted in 2021, officers learned how to de-escalate conflicts whenever possible, limit the use of force, and report any abuses by colleagues. But on the streets, police warrior culture trumped that training and the race of the officers who pulled Nichols over. For allegedly driving erratically, they treated a terrified, compliant young man like a war criminal. While repeatedly pepper spraying a pinned Nichols in the face, one cop got some in his own eyes. "Ah, you motherf---er," he yelled at Nichols. "Made me spray myself." Fearing the gang of unhinged cops might kill him, a terrified Nichols got up and ran, and a sixth cop (who, as it happens, is white) said as his buddies gave chase, "I hope they stomp his ass."

I have known good cops — empathetic men and women who truly care about the people they protect and serve. But through my experience and that of friends and family, I have observed this about dealing with cops: If you convey anything but total, meek submission, even in facial expressions or attitude, you are very likely to pay a price. In every police department, there are authoritarians who enjoy intimidating and dominating civilians. (The biggest bully in my daughters' school, who brutalized much younger kids and whispered rape threats to girls, is now a cop.) In high-crime urban communities, a warrior mentality — an "Us vs. Them" mindset — often takes hold. Cops who don't buy into this culture, and who object to dehumanizing the "perps," are shunned. Until that culture changes, reform efforts will fail. In Memphis, the SCORPION unit cops stood around chuckling and bragging after savagely beating Nichols to a bloody pulp. "I was hitting him with straight haymakers, dog," one boasted. "I jumped in, started rocking him," said another. They bumped fists, celebrating.

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William Falk

William Falk is editor-in-chief of The Week, and has held that role since the magazine's first issue in 2001. He has previously been a reporter, columnist, and editor at the Gannett Westchester Newspapers and at Newsday, where he was part of two reporting teams that won Pulitzer Prizes.