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A former police chief says more police does not mean less crime


It almost goes without saying, but Tyre Nichols' death after a vicious beating by now-fired Memphis police isn't the first extrajudicial killing of an unarmed person. It's just the latest in a list that's too long to name here - Elijah McClain in August 2019, George Floyd in May of 2020 and others whose names may never be known. But on top of the trauma to families and communities and the damage to police and community relationships, municipalities have paid out tens of millions of dollars in legal settlements, not to mention repairing the damage that often comes from civil unrest when the police misconduct becomes public.

So that raises the question, why does this kind of behavior continue? To talk about that, we've called RaShall Brackney. She has years of experience in law enforcement. She's the former police chief for Charlottesville, Va., where she was the first African American woman to hold that position. Prior to that, she had decades in the Pittsburgh Police Department, and she's now teaching at the university level. And she's with us now. Chief Brackney, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us once again, although, of course, I'm sorry about why.

RASHALL BRACKNEY: I agree. And thank you for having me and at least providing an opportunity and space, for there are perspectives and opinions to be heard.

MARTIN: When you saw the bodycam video that was released, I'm sure this isn't the first disturbing video that you've seen of an encounter like this. But what stood out to you?

BRACKNEY: It was painful. It was painful, you know, as a Black woman. It was painful as a - someone who has a Black husband, you know, as a wife. I've got my brothers and my cousins and my nephews. And what was gut-wrenching is the cries for his mother. He's 80 to 100 yards screaming, mama - the cries of desperation that maybe his mother could somehow protect him as Black mothers have always been forced to protect our children against institutions of violence and supremacy.

MARTIN: We're going to hear what these former officers have to say when they go to trial. But it seems that part of their - what they're angry about is that he ran. What - tell me - what's all that about? Like, don't make me run. Like, that kind of thing - what is that about?

BRACKNEY: I came on in 1984, and there were those kinds of unspoken, if you disrespect me, if you make me run, there's this curbside justice, this punishment that I'm going to give you. We saw it in Freddie Gray. We're going to make you pay for the fact that you required us to do what is part of our job. And it's running. It's being in shape. It's you didn't speak to me in the manner that I want to be spoken to. They used every obscenity, every demeaning and degrading obscenity against Tyre Nichols. So it's not even just the physical punishment. It's the demeaning way in which we speak to him as well that says, we're allowed to treat you any way we want to.

MARTIN: Is this kind of thing taught? I mean, is this the kind of thing that you're taught to do?

BRACKNEY: The training on paper is very different than the socialization and the indoctrination. We send these subtle messages all of the time that go against the formal training that we have on our lesson plans. And we do that through, hey, you've got to come home every night. You've got to make sure that they never do this to you again, that they never think about challenging you. And those subtle messages are always us versus them.

MARTIN: It's been reported that all the officers in this incident - although subsequently, I do want to mention that two EMTs have been fired and two sheriff's deputies have been - are being investigated for what they failed to do in this situation. But the former officers who were involved directly in this incident were members of something called the SCORPION Unit, standing for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace In Our Neighborhood. And it was supposed to be responding to so-called crime hotspots. OK. Look, it is a fact and it is known that, you know, according to FBI data, Memphis was the most violent metropolitan area in the United States in 2020. They set a record for murders in 2021, breaking the previous record, which was set the prior year.

So this this kind of specialized unit, where people are going to jump out and, you know, confront people, supposedly, this has been done in other places. And there have been many, many abuses reported. There have been lots of, you know, scandalous incidents in - connected to these so-called specialized units. What is the thinking in law enforcement about this? Is it that that's the best you can do? Or is that what the public wants to see?

BRACKNEY: This has been a long history, long-standing. When you have these specialized units, there's a tendency to cover up based on self-preservation. A lot of what we're seeing coming out of Memphis right now is self-preservation for policing.

MARTIN: And how do you stop what you call this kind of indoctrination versus training? I mean, you've spoken about this several times. You said that there's training, and then there's indoctrination, and the indoctrination starts immediately. How do you intervene in that?

BRACKNEY: We've got to reprogram officers as to what their job is, right? It is not an us versus them. We are part of the fabric of society. And until we realize that, that we are no better than them or the rest of society, that we don't get to, you know, mete out justice, curbside justice, because we don't believe there's going to be justice in the system, when we stop saying, it's not the five, like that has been going around, that represents the 800,000 other police officers - yes, it is. Until we own and acknowledge as part of our history and part of our teaching and part of our trainings that we are part of oftentimes state-sanctioned violence, until we as the policing profession refuse to comply with what the state is requiring of us and what the institution is requiring of us, it'll continue. And that's the only way that we stop indoctrination. We have to resist as well.

MARTIN: That's RaShall Brackney. She has decades of experience in law enforcement, most recently as the former chief of police of Charlottesville, Va. She's now a distinguished visiting professor of practice at George Mason University. Chief Brackney, professor Brackney, thanks so much for talking to us today and sharing this expertise with us.

BRACKNEY: Thank you so much for having me, and you be well.

MARTIN: And we'd like to let you know that I, along with other members of our team, will be in Memphis tomorrow. We'll be talking with community members and leaders, including Representative Steve Cohen, about where the city goes from here and what changes they'd like to see in Memphis and across the country. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.