Scorpions in Memphis: The Murder of Tyre Nichols
Welcome to Crime Raven; true crimes, real-life stories from law enforcement, and issues crime fighters face. This podcast highlights crimes researched by retired Detective Sergeant Mark Rein using publicly available information, court records and personal recollections. Content may be graphic, disturbing, or violent. Listener discretion is advised. Suspects are considered innocent until found guilty in a court of law.
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This week we wanted to do something a little different from our usual episode. In the last month, there's been a lot of attention on the death of Tyre Nichols after a traffic stop that occurred on January 7th, 2023, in Memphis, Tennessee.
Before we discuss the issues, here's the synopsis of the event and its fallout up to, February 10th, 2023.
The original police account stated that at around 8:30 PM a vehicle operated by Nichols was observed driving recklessly. The car was stopped at the intersection of East Rains and Ross Road by members of the Memphis Police Department Scorpion Unit. Upon contact, the driver was confrontational and combative with officers. Officers attempted to subdue Nichols, but he escaped and fled on foot into the adjoining neighborhood.
Additional officers were called to the area and a search perimeter was established. Nichols was discovered six minutes later and half a mile away, near the intersection of Bear Creek and CastleGate Lane.
Upon his re-engagement, Nichols continued his fight with officers, which included attempts to grab their service weapons. Nichols was injured during this second struggle, so officers summoned Memphis Fire Department medics. The medics determined Nichols was in need of additional care, and he was transported by ambulance to the hospital.
That was the basic official account of the incident involving Tyre Nichols. It would've remained that way, memorialized in police records if Tyre Nichols, after languishing in St. Francis Hospital in Memphis for three days, hadn't died from his injuries.
Here's what really happened.
It wouldn't have taken long for Memphis investigators to realize the department had a problem. Fixed stationary surveillance and officer body cameras recorded the stop and major parts of the incident.
They did not capture the alleged reckless driving offense on camera, but the traffic stop was captured. The footage showed one officer opening the driver's side door of Tyre Nichols' car, and with no prior engagement, grabbing him and physically forcing him from the car and onto the asphalt roadway. Tyre defensively resisted while asking questions about what was happening. Multiple officers screamed orders and obscenities, nearly drowning out Tyre's pleas.
He continuously tried to roll to his back to keep from being handcuffed. At one point, an officer stepped forward and announced he was going to use his taser. The others released their grips on Tyre Nichols, anticipating taser deployment. Tyre stood up quickly as the taser was fired into his back. The taser was ineffective, and he ran southbound on Ross Road into the adjacent neighborhood.
Tyre Nichols eluded officers for six minutes, at which point they saw him running near the intersection of Bear Creek and CastleGate. He was about 80 yards from his mother's home. The officer that spotted Tyre tackled him, and four more officers from the Scorpion unit converged at that location.
The officers began beating Tyre, punching him, kicking him, and Pepper spraying him. They took turns holding him up and striking him. Twice they held him up so that they could kick him in the face. He was sprayed with OC spray and hit with a baton repeatedly, all while handcuffed.
Three body cameras and a CCTV camera mounted at the top of a nearby light pole captured the beating. What the video did not show was any aggressive resistance from Tyre. None at all. The video made it clear that the officer's use of force went far beyond what was necessary for capture. They were punishing Tyre Nichols.
After the beating, a semi-conscious Tyre was drug over to one of the police cars and pushed up into a seated position while they waited for medics. During the delay, he lost consciousness and slumped sideways to the ground several times. The officers ordered him to sit up, and when he couldn't comply, they pulled him into a seated position.
The first medics arrived in a fire engine at 8:41 PM They recognized he needed further
medical attention and confirmed the ambulance response was needed, but otherwise did little to stabilize his worsening condition. The ambulance arrived 20 minutes later and took Tyre to the hospital. When he arrived, he was in critical condition.
After the scene cleanup, the officers involved in the incident filed police reports that did not accurately reflect the nature of the stop or the subsequent capture. They described Tyre Nichols as being violently aggressive.
Tyre Nichols died on January 10th because of the injury sustained during the beating. The death began a cascade of action from Memphis City and county officials. That same day, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations publicly announced that Tyre Nichols died because of injuries sustained during a use of force incident with Memphis officers.
All the officers directly involved were suspended, pending the use of force investigation. Citizens demanded the department release the videos. The county prosecutor issued a statement that said they would release the videos after the investigation was complete.
The Memphis Chief of Police, Cerelyn Davis, having only been in the job since June 2021, had the uncomfortable task of describing the incident. How she characterized what she saw on the videos was so different from what we expected from police leadership following similar incidents that it caught the entire nation's attention.
Chief Davis said that what she saw her officers doing was a "vicious, prolonged beating. Adding. "This is not just a professional failing. This is a failing of basic humanity toward another individual. This incident was heinous, reckless, and inhumane. And in the vein of transparency, when the video is released in the coming days, you will see this for yourselves." Chief Davis reassured protestors that her investigators were working in cooperation with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Shelby County District Attorney's Office.
On January 18th, the Department of Justice announced that it, too, would be joining the mix. The US attorney for the Western District of Tennessee said "last week, Tyre Nichols tragically died a few days after he was involved in an incident where Memphis Police Department officers used force during his arrest. In cooperation with the FBI Memphis Field Office, the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice has opened a civil rights investigation."
On January 20th, Memphis Police completed its internal investigation and released names of five officers it was terminating based on violation of multiple departmental policies, including excessive use of force, duty to intervene and duty to render aid. These officers are Tadarius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmett Martins the third, Desmond Mill Jr. and Justin Smith.
On January 23rd, they released the police video to Tyre Nichols' family. The family received a little over an hour of footage from the officer's cameras and the pole mounted unit. Tyre's stepfather said, "what I saw on the video today was horrific. No father, mother should have to witness what I saw today."
Tyre's mother couldn't bear to watch the video after the first minute when she heard her son cry out, 'What did I do?'
One of the family attorneys said, "He was defenseless the entire time." Adding, "it was an
unadulterated, unabashed, non-stop beating of this young boy for three minutes. That is what we saw in that video. Not only was it violent, it was savage." Well-known civil rights attorney, Ben Crump, after viewing the footage said, the video will, "remind you of Rodney King."
On January 26th, the Shelby County Tennessee Criminal Court released information on the indictment of the five Memphis police officers. They were all charged with second degree murder, aggravated assault. Two charges of aggravated kidnapping, two charges of official misconduct, and one charge of official oppression.
The district attorney explained the blanket charges in a subsequent news conference saying, "while each of the five individuals played a different role in the incident in question, the actions of all of them resulted in the death of Tyre Nichols and they are all responsible."
On January 29th, the Memphis police chief announced she was disbanding the Scorpion Unit, the acronym Scorpions, stood for street crimes operations to restore peace in our neighborhoods.
On February 3rd, Memphis Police terminated the employment of a sixth officer Preston Hemphill and released his body camera video to support that action. Hemphill was at the scene of the initial traffic stop and attempted to use his taser on Tyre Nichols. The taser was ineffective and Hemphill watched as Nichols ran away.
On his video recording, we can see other officers running after Nichols. As Hemphill stood in the street watching, he said as if to himself, "I hope they stomp his ass." Hemphill escaped the criminal net because he did not respond to the second scene. In the Memphis police statement, they fired Hemphill for policy violations related to the use of the taser, his personal conduct and his truthfulness. They've also requested that Tennessee decertify him so he cannot go elsewhere for employment in law enforcement.
The fire department took action against three of its employees that had previously been suspended during investigation. The emergency medical technicians who responded to the scene, Robert Long and Jamihael Sandridge, were fired for failing to render care the 19 minutes they were there before the ambulance arrived. Their Lieutenant, Michelle Whitaker, who never left the fire engine as it was parked nearby, was terminated for dereliction of duty.
Marcy: Mark, why are we talking about this case today?
Mark: I think a lot of people we know have questions. And as a former police officer I don't wanna give excuses. There is no acceptable excuse for what happened here, but to try to explain how this could have happened to make assurances it's not standard operating procedure for the majority of police officers. And to talk about how this could be avoided in the future.
Marcy: Let's go through it. This started ostensibly as a traffic stop for reckless driving, but the investigators have said they haven't been able to substantiate that. Do you think that it's possible they stopped Nichols for no reason?
Mark: I've heard conjecture that they stopped Nichols for doing nothing wrong. And maybe that he was targeted for some reason. If you look at the audio recordings, there's nothing that I've heard, and I think I've listened to all of it's been released that indicated that they knew him, that they were targeting him. I think there would've been some words there as they were expressing things that they; we got him or this is him, or, yeah; we got the right guy that they would've said something to indicate that this is the guy they were looking for. I don't think that's why this stop happened.
Marcy: Some of that conjecture, I think, is based on the fact that one officer sent photos of Tyre after the beating to several uninvolved people, even people that weren't employees of the police department.
Mark: My personal opinion is that they were just wanting to share this event. Look, we beat the crap outta this guy, kind of thing. Which if you think about it, and especially in what the outcome here is incredibly stupid.
Marcy: Yeah. Also incredibly immoral. Was this then a traffic issue?
Mark: Yeah, that's my guess. So reckless driving can be almost anything the officer can articulate is dangerous. In Tennessee, the definition is, and I don't know if they have a separate municipal code for Memphis. In Anchorage, we had completely different traffic municipal codes. But in Tennessee, the definition of reckless driving is any person who drives in a, any vehicle in a willful or wanted disregard for the safety of persons or property. The driving offense may have been small and almost unrecognizable to somebody who wasn't sitting in the vehicle. Like he's driving fast or aggressively. A lot of urban drivers drive like that. Maybe he cut an officer off in traffic and it pissed him off. But it's hard for me to believe they picked Nichols completely at random. But actually after watching the video, I guess anything's possible.
What you can see from the video is that the first officer makes contact is really pissed off. He jerks the door open and yanks Tyre out on the ground with no conversation.
Marcy: And that officer is in plain clothes driving an unmarked car. As a driver myself, I would be concerned about whether that was a legitimate cop that was trying to stop me.
Mark: Yeah. I can tell you I worked extensively in plain clothes, and in unmarked vehicles, and we never, ever made stops in them. We always had a marked unit, a uniformed officer, personnel. On hand, to do those stops. We might be follow up units, but never made the stops like that.
Marcy: So that wasn't the way you did things.
Mark: No. There's time for fast, decisive action, but jerking a guy out of his car with no buildup, no conflict prior, isn't something that I've seen done.
I've made hundreds of traffic stops in my career, and, 99% of them started with the approach to the window that you see on tv, the introduction. Any cop can recite that introduction to their sleep. Good evening, ma. Sir. I'm Sergeant Ryan, the Anchorage Police Department. Could I see your license, registration, please?
Even if they're driving like an asshole. We get the formalities done. And this is true of all the officers I worked with. You start a contact with the introduction, take care of business. If the stop goes sideways, who knows, maybe down the road in the conversation and the incident's use of force may become necessary. But that's an escalation generally that the suspect in the car chose to make.
Marcy: Can you give an example of an incident where you did have to use force to pull somebody out of a car?
Mark: Yeah. Like immediately. Yeah. Okay. All so one comes to mind. I'm eating lunch with a couple other officers at a trusted restaurant.
It's 4:00 AM and a woman who's speeding, she's driving drunk. She skids on the ice, leaves the roadway over a curb into our parking lot, and collides with my patrol car. I'm sitting at a table about 40 feet away. And I can see this woman in side shot that she looks panic.
She's looking from side to side and she jams it into reverse and is trying to back out. So her tires are spinning so I jump out. I run out of the front door and she's looking at me, eyes wide, and her tires are just screaming.
Now I have to stop her before she's able to get the car free and maybe get out back on the road because it's, let's be honest, it's a weekend night in the early morning. It's likely she's drunk and I know that. She's trying to escape and I basically run over, open the door. Now keep in mind she's trying to back away from my car. If she gets traction, she hooks me in that car door. I'm in trouble physically, so yes, I jerk her out and I put her on the ground and we cuff her up, but that's an emergency situation.
She's drunk. And could hurt people, had she been allowed to get away. She could have hurt me if the car suddenly got traction. The difference here is yeah I'm hot, this is adrenaline dump. But after that take down, I start talking to her. We go back down, deescalate the situation, and I calmly processed her for DUI and she went to jail. There was no beating involved. That's the difference. You go up; you come back down,
Marcy: did she fight with you?
Mark: A little. She's struggling with me. She doesn't want to go to jail. She knows that she could hit a cop car. Can you imagine the fear? Even through the drunkenness, you hit a cop car. I used appropriate force to subdue her. She wasn't injured.
Marcy: So describe what appropriate force is.
Mark: The states regulate the standards for their police departments in the state. Everybody has to be certified as a police officer in the state. And everywhere I'm aware of uses what they call it, use of force continuum. There are variations on the use of force continuum, but everyone I've ever been exposed to are along the same theme.
Marcy: By force continuum, you mean what level of force is allowed depends on what level of resistance that person is using?
Mark: Yeah. And I'll go through 'em real quick. The first level of force is voice command. The officer gives someone a lawful order. A lawful order means you have to under the law obey the order I'm giving you, for example, is that if I'm investigating a crime and you're committing a crime, and I tell you to stop, that's a lawful order. You have to stop. The first is basically my presence and my voice.
Second level is soft, empty hand control. For example, the person you give that lawful order to doesn't stop. An officer might grab a person by their arm or wrist and or block them from leaving. Soft empty hand control is generally for defensive resistance. Like they're walking away, they start pulling away. Defensive resistance is what Tyre Nichols exhibited during this stop.
Third level is hard, empty hand control techniques. So this is resistance as more forceful and aggressive. The subject's pulling violently away. The subject's bawling hands, like coming at you, like he's gonna hit or kick the officer. Depending on the aggressiveness of this, hard empty hand control could be an armbar takedown, which was one of my favorite moves for somebody who's violent. Strikes that fend off the attack. Strikes to nerve centers, like common peroneal strikes that could potentially stunt, a suspect. So those are basically control techniques. It's called hard, empty hand control because you're not using a weapon, you're just grabbing 'em. You're striking them, trying to get them to comply.
Now, the fourth level is intermediate weapons. That's when the baton, the taser, the OC spray can come in. These are generally used against higher end, aggressive and aggravated aggressive resistance. Some use of force policies allow OC and taser for defensive resistance, but most don't, and ours, didn't.
If you are just defensively trying to pull away, hitting somebody with a baton, hitting them with OC can seem punitive. And that's why most policies have moved those higher up on the force continuum.
The fifth level above intermediate weapons is deadly force. The kind of situation where the suspect has a weapon and is doing something that endangers the lives of people or officers. Obviously, the response would be an officer using a firearm as an example of deadly force. But certain strikes, a baton strike to the head, is also usually considered deadly force because, you get hit with a baton that's, 24 inches of hickory, it could crack your skull potentially endangering your life.
It's important to say that most departments require use of force to be reasonable. That just because you technically could use a maximum force against a certain level of aggression doesn't mean you should.
In essence, what that is if I come upon a 95-year-old woman who's holding a baseball bat and says, I'm gonna hit you with this baseball bat, if I picked her up and slammed her on the ground. That would be excessive under most use of force continuums. However, if this is a big guy who looks me in the eye, squares off, raises the bat and said, I'm gonna beat you number one, that's a deadly force. But if but if I picked him up and slammed him on the ground, that would be a good use of force because it meets the level of threat. Like I said, the 95-year-old woman's unlikely to be able to beat you to death with an aluminum bat, even if she says she is. And that's a similar to a real-life situation, that I know about from my real police careers is somebody who's a little bit too much not way, but a little bit too much force in affecting the arrest of an elderly person. And although it was within the proper use of force. What was found is that was excessive force because the age and the real, the ability to project that harm, was just not there.
It calls on somebody's judgment to make an assessment of a real threat. And what is, the appropriate level, to gain compliance without going overboard?
Marcy: On the force continuum, where do the beanbag guns fall?
Mark: same as a baton strike. If you're in the position where you're shooting somebody with a beanbag, there's a pretty high level of threat there. That's a guy potentially with a knife or some weapon that could, if he moved, he could project that weapon against you. Now, beanbag are generally inappropriate for a guy with a firearm because that guy shoots some, shoots and it's too late, right? beanbag's, same level of force as a baton. Now, not everybody who is aggressively resisting should be hit with a baton.
Marcy: So it's not just about the amount of resistance that's being expressed by a person, it's, there's like the totality of the circumstances that you have to take into consideration.
Mark: Yes. And that's why being a police officer is a complicated thing. And it's also why in a lot of, for years, and this is changing now, police officers have been given a lot of latitude to make that discretion because you have to make a split second decision. And the police officers have been given a lot of latitude to make those decisions and not be second guessed. But I think we're moving out of that now with incidents like this.
Marcy: If the level of force authorized is based on resistance, then how do you characterize what Tyre Nichols did during this initial stop?
Mark: Yeah. The video clearly shows Tyre exhibiting what I would call classic defensive resistance. Of the times I've encountered resistance, this is the most common, it's the lowest level.
They don't wanna go into handcuffs; they want to pull away. They're questioning why this is happening, the legality of what's happening. But what doesn't happen is there aren't any strikes, no punches, kicks or going for weapons. That happens, but it's much less common than somebody not wanting to go to jail and pulling away.
That's where the line is. That would justify a, higher-level use of force. And Tyre Nichols in this video does not show a higher level of force. He's scared, first of all, probably cuz he was pulled over by a bunch of guys in plain clothes and unmarked cars.
He doesn't know what's going on. These aren't, these guys aren't acting like cops. He knows from television. They're swearing at him. They're ordering, and he's scared. Adrenaline dumps going on and he's trying to turn away and assess the situation. And they're not trying to explain things. They're yelling obscenities at him.
Marcy: Where were his hands? Cuz one of the concerns that I gather is that if somebody's hiding their hands while they're on the ground and resisting the handcuffs, you're worried about them reaching for a gun in their waistband.
Mark: Yeah. You're gonna worry about that on this stop, right? And one of the things is his hands are down along his sides, and it is a concern there's a weapon, but what he's really trying to do is defensively resist and he's trying to leverage his hands on the ground so that he can turn towards them and talk to them and basically question them about what's going on.
Yes, there is a concern he could have a weapon, and that's something that an officer can articulate, but this is not. If you watch this thing, he is defensively resisting what you would expect to have happen. He doesn't go for a weapon. He's trying to turn over and keep from being handcuffed, which is, when there is a struggle to get somebody in handcuffs, that's what always happens.
Marcy: What's your opinion about that first part of that stop?
Mark: My opinion based on what I saw is classic, what they call contempt of cop. Here's a police officer who is greatly offended by what happened. Maybe he got cut off in traffic, or there, he saw the guy speeding and how dare you do that?
And the initiating problem is this officer was pissed off. He did not communicate effectively. The obscenities being thrown around really, people question the legitimacy of what you're doing when officers are talking like that, right?, and his defensive resisting, he didn't just go quietly into cuffs on the ground, which is what they expected.
The defensive resistance further pissed them off. Everybody seemed pissed. I don't know why. You think as police officers, especially working at night, you get used to being sworn at.
And I, man, I think the control tactics here were inexcusable. There's five officers there. No one was willing to get down. No one used the one-on-one control techniques that you're taught. Pin them down and use force to force 'em into handcuffs. I don't know. They must have missed those days at the academy. But I have never personally seen such ineffectual control, particularly with so many officers present. This guy's 145 pounds. He's a tall guy, but he's 145 pounds. And I have never seen so many officers with so little control on a subject.
So I'm gonna say something surprising. Most individual officers can take most people into custody all alone if they're willing to beat them into submission. But it is very difficult for a single officer to force an uncooperative suspect in handcuffs by himself. And that's, so no one gets hurt. There has to be at least two, sometimes more officers who've been trained to work together use those one-on-one control techniques and taken, even combative subject into custody.
You know what should have happened here is he's pinned down, takes control of a wrist, and the second one works to the other arm and works 'em back into handcuffs. I'm thinking about the times that me and a single other officer took down more, more than one suspect and struggled on the ground with them. And we do it all the time. And I don't know what their reluctance to get on the ground where this guy was. But I just, I can't believe the lack of control here.
Marcy: Tasers are my pet peeve. What about this taser they tried to use? They shouldn't have used it, right?
Mark: No, and you can see exactly why in that clip, right?
Tasers have their uses and benefits, but in this case, the first use of the taser was in drive stun mode. So people that don't know tasers can be used in two ways. Tasers can be fired and in firing them, you have a cartridge on the front of the taser and two fish hook like prongs shoot out from the front of the taser. With good probe hits, which means they have, they're in the body in separate areas. All the muscles in the body lock up between the two probes. So you want a little bit of separation in those probes and that caused immobilization. I've had bad taser deployment, just like what happened on the video.
I'll give you an example of one of my bad deployments. The guy had on a tight nylon jacket and the top of my probe skimmed off his back on the nylon just skimmed off into space, right? And it was ineffective., it did nothing to him.
Okay. The second way to use a taser is what's called drive stun mode. You don't have a cartridge on the front. No fish hooks, and the probes don't shoot out. This is just like using your taser, like a cattle prod. So it's painful. And the reason people use it like that is cuz it's painful. It can be used to gain submission. So somebody will do what you say because you're cattle prodding them.
The real problem with drive stud mode is it does nothing to immobilize the subject. Most officers I work with, myself included, never use drives stun after the first few applications, because it caused one or two things. Either the subject you're tasing gets really pissed off or it cause 'em the panic. And neither are good for accomplishing the goal of taking someone into custody.
Marcy: You think that's what happened with Tyre?
Mark: On the first stop I'm watching the officers drive stun him. They're screaming at him, and this guy's just going up, he's panicking. He gets drive stunned. Oh my God, that hurts. And what the hell's going on with me, kind of thing. And that's what I read from that stop is the drive stun did nothing to subdue him, and it only drove his panic higher.
Marcy: And you think that they let him go so they could specifically tase him with the probes?
Mark: There's not a question in my mind. If you watch the video, there's a pause when he says he is gonna tase. There's a pause. All the officers let go and some of them step back. And just before that, the officer puts the cartridge on and then he fires taser. Obviously, the probes don't make solid contact. I don't know if they stuck in his jacket or where they went. Nichols gets up and runs away, and the reason the officers don't immediately grab him as he gets up and starts to move is because they're afraid of getting caught up in the wires and getting shocked themselves.
This whole thing is a fiasco. You have a pissed off cop, bad communication, horrible control tactics. And now Nichols goes running off into the night.
Let's review from his perspective. He could have been driving like an asshole, but he's not aware of that. Like so many people do, so many people do. Here's a guy who purports to be an officer and doesn't even give him the good evening. My name is speech. Like you see on tv, he's not wearing a uniform. He's not in a marked car. All Nichols knows is being pulled to the ground. Yeah. They're giving him like officer like commands. But they're also doing it under a barrage of obscenities. And he's saying what is happening? What did I do? He knows that these cops aren't acting the way they're supposed to act. One minute, he's driving his car, and the next he's on the pavement. He's wondering, is this life or death? To him, it sure must have seemed like it. And of course he's gonna flee at the first opportunity. He doesn't know where all this is going. And you, we know from recent events, Nichols has reason to fear for his life. And when he is able to break away, he moved as if he was running for his life because he was.
And then the cops have to set up a perimeter and run to try and find him. I worked at night and this is a great aspect of the job. You set up the perimeter and now it's hide and seek adult style, right? So we're looking for a guy in the perimeter, but these guys are already pissed, right? They don't have to go chasing after a guy. The pause doesn't do anything for their outlook. I guess none of them reset during the pause because six minutes later one of them tackles him on a street corner, and it's less than a hundred yards from his mother's house. And those guys are ready for some retribution. This isn't really funny, but it was Chris Rock that made the video where he said, if cops have to run to catch you, they're bringing an ass kicking with them. He was joking, but apparently in Memphis, the officers took that to heart.
Up until that point, I'd personally seen everything that had happened in my career. I've seen a pissed off cop. I've seen the cops that are reluctant to physically engage when that is re what is required to end a situation. But I've never seen cops beating a suspect like that, holding him up, striking him, and the officers in Memphis did so with fists, with a baton. And they hit 'em in the head. This isn't the movies. People die. They get brain damage from blows to the head. Experienced cops should know that. This is where those guys bought the murder charge. They stand him up and just beat 'em because they're angry.
Marcy: You said that the use of OC on the second scene was to punish Nichols?
Mark: With my insight experience. When I watched, the video, the second scene, one of the first things I fixated on, I had a gut reaction about the use of OC spray. Nichols was sprayed in the face at very close range, at least a couple times.
In my experience, OC is really good for one thing, aggressive dogs. Also in my experience, only rookies use OC. I used OC a few times in the first couple of years on patrol and never after that. I'm talking about the personal OC canister. I did use the tank OC for civil unrest a couple of times, but that's different.
Marcy: Why didn't you use OC?
Mark: It wasn't just me that didn't use OC., if you're in uniform, you're gonna wear your OC because it's issued gear. There was one incident. I know that one of, my coworkers, OC canister, was so old that he never used it. It was so old. The bottom bursts from normal wear and tear, like getting in and outta his car for years. The bottom of his little aluminum can of OC popped because of just wear.
This wasn't because no one ever qualified as a good OC target. It was because the cleanup was a pain in the ass. It went everywhere. In the field, you just couldn't adequately wash it off. Most of the time, if you had a guy who fought, resisted, et cetera, like I described earlier, you could talk him down. Things would become tranquil. Then you could process the paper. You might take the guy for bail hearing and remand them to jail. If you OC to somebody, you aren't gonna get a decent interview from that suspect you sprayed. And sometimes you want to get a good interview. And the reason for that is he or she, they're miserable. You are miserable, too. All you want to do is get rid of them. And you better like it spicy because that stuff's gonna linger in your car for the rest of your shift, even if you wipe everything down.
I remember being on what is in the business called a pig pile. A group of cops trying to wrestle a large combative man into handcuffs. We had rookies with us, and rookie did what this, but what he is trained to do, he announces spray. His field training officer said very harshly. Do not spray. If you spray, I'm gonna shove it up your ass. So no spray was used. So we got that guy into handcuffs and off we went. The whole point of that is to say the Memphis crew used spray the way they did because they knew he's going to the hospital and they wouldn't have to clean him up.
Marcy: After the beating, the officers propped Tyre up against one of their cars. The medics come, but they do nothing.
Mark: So the way medical calls usually go, particularly at night, if it's something the police can help with, they're sent to the call because they'll usually be the first to arrive. Because we're not asleep when the call comes in. The next will be the fire engine with the firefighters cross-trained as EMTs or paramedics or a board. And the ambulances last. In cities, ambulance crews commonly run all night and are often in use and have to clear a call before they get there. So in this case, in Memphis, the fire engine arrives about 20 minutes before the ambulance. The paramedics in that role, the job, is to assess the patient and give what aid they could. Considering the nature of Nichols' injuries, there probably wasn't much that these two paramedics off the fire rig could do. And I suspect they didn't want to get too close to him because he'd been bathed in OC. Whatever The truth is, it's a cautionary tale for EMTs because not covering the basics got them and their lieutenant fired.
Marcy: Tyre Nichols didn't die for three days. Are you surprised that the investigation was started after that?
Mark: No. There'd be a time involved where there is some communication. In my roles as a street sergeant and especially as detective sergeant, I had pretty good relations with hospital staff. I popped into the ERs quite a bit, took a look at what was going on with some of our cases and calls, especially when I was a sex assault sergeant also. And. We would get calls if there was something the docs, or the staff didn't like they'd call us, for example, I get a patient that we had just sent to the hospital and the doc; they take the clothes off, and the woman is just covered with bruises and they wanna know, did you see this? Did you investigate this? And so I had to go over there and talk with 'em about what we saw and what happened. Same thing with if there's use of force issues they would call and want to talk to somebody. The er docs aren't shy about asking questions about mechanism of injury if they get somebody in there and a nasty car wreck. Well, do we have any idea of the speed? This kind of thing? The same thing with violent attacks or even police use of force.
If you look at Tyre Nichols photos when he was in the hospital bed, It is obvious that he had been beaten very badly. Keep in mind they, they kicked him in the head, in the face. So his head is just swollen. I think it's likely that somebody at the hospital called to report the status to Memphis police, or, when he died, the medical examiner either took the call and they alerted the PD.
Marcy: This case really shows the importance of body cameras for resolving situations like this, but digital records don't always go against the police. And you've talked about the benefit of having audio recordings or videos for investigations.
Mark: Yeah. In past episodes, I've mentioned working with internal affairs and other detective units because I was in Vice and I had specialized equipment. Working cases on other cops is a horrible experience and one that I would never have volunteered for. The further along I go and the further I get from those cases, the more perspective I have on how essential that kind of accountability is.
Most of the internal recordings I was looking at as a sergeant were just simple audio recordings from my officers or detectives during contacts.
Marcy: Like recordings made by officers during a traffic stop or an interview.
Mark: Yeah, exactly. So when I was a rookie, recorders were enormous, physically enormous. We would take a tape, decks and record really important interviews, like homicides and so forth from witnesses in the field, but not much else.
It quickly evolved as devices got smaller and less expensive and then digitized. They're more user friendly to store the data. At some point, all of the newer guys began recording almost every traffic stop and contact and this was big for resolving complaints.
Marcy: like citizens complaining about officers.
Mark: Yeah. So most complaints came through internal affairs. And internal affairs kept what interested them, and the rest filtered out to unit supervisors. Complaints weren't uncommon and most could be categorized into two things.
Questions or criticism about what the officer had done. Many of these people are looking for a different answer than what they got from the officers. Then their complaints of unprofessional behavior or rudeness. So the first category usually entailed me explaining our law or policy and, most often, reinforcing what the officer or detective had done.
My guys, especially as a detective, knew what the policy procedure was, and we followed it all the time. So basically I had to reaffirm, yes, they knew what they were talking about. Yes, this is what we do and so forth. But on occasion I'd catch errors that we made. And the good thing there is we were able to fix those most of the time.
The second category, the rude on professional behavior, was where the audio recordings often came in handy.
Marcy: Is that like complaining that the officer had yelled or swore at them?
Mark: Yeah. I really don't like the potential of the, he said, she said in that situation. When I first started looking at these when I was a new sergeant that was like, oh God, how am I gonna prove or disprove what was said?
But to my surprise, most of the time I had pretty good audio of the contact. And the ones I was listening to were rarely out of bounds. Sometimes the officer gets a little short. And invariably the worst sounding complaints often turned out to be the easiest to handle.
Marcy: People were exaggerating with the officer had done.
Mark: Yeah. Either that or outright lied. I learned from my night shift sergeant thanks Bill Richardson. That the best thing to do is let a person who wanted to vent about the police do just that. In those cases, I'd get on the phone and I'd hunker down and let the storm blow itself out.
Sometimes these people just wanted to have somebody listen to them. And then I'd talk with 'em about what happened. And they were, oftentimes it was very reasonable. After, like I said, the storm blew itself out. Sometimes these people were looking to get, the officer wrote them a ticket into trouble, and they'd be blowhards, saying things like, if I didn't take care of it they're gonna have all of our badges.
Well, nobody ever had my badge, and a lot of people said they were gonna. My thing was I'd listened to him and after listening I'd assured the complainant that I review all the pertinent information. Oftentimes I'd let drop that these officers carry audio recorders and the whole thing was caught on tape.
Then I'd promised to get back to them with any questions I had or what my conclusion about the complaint was. When they found out there was likely to be a recording, people would often change their tone or sound different as I talked to them. So then I'd review the tape and nine times outta 10 the contact was markedly different from what the complainant described.
Many times there were outright lies about what the complainant was saying that the officer had said, or the tone, or obscenities he or she used. In a lot of cases where the person outright lied, I wouldn't be able to reach them on follow-up calls nor would they call me back.
Marcy: So the dreaded audio recording isn't that bad?
Mark: No. I had a couple that, hey, this is questionable, you really shouldn't have said this, or I had some, this isn't the procedure anymore. Procedures change type corrections. For the most part, the officers were used to making the recordings.
And most of the time, they sounded great. When it didn't sound great, a lot of times it was caused by the complainant's demeanor. And when an officer's direct and sounds terse or commanding a lot of times, that's okay in our line of work, that's not rude. That's sometimes necessary.
Marcy: What about dreading body cameras?
Mark: Yeah, I was really worried about it. I never had to work with the body camera. I was worried how it would change liabilities as a police officer in terms of not following policy procedure exactly. I was worried there'd be a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking.
But, after my experience with audio, I was less concerned. I was worried that, body camera would make a, an impossible for an officer to make a decision. This is a profession where, at times you have to make instant decisions. To have every move scrutinized through one narrow lens was disturbing to me.
But what I think we've seen is that just like the audio officers are mostly doing the right thing and the real value in the body cams is confidence that we can catch the kind of organizational cancer that we see displayed in the Memphis incident.
Marcy: Do you think that video from Memphis is just the tip of the iceberg?
Mark:, yes, absolutely. What we've seen with video is that eventually officers wearing them relax and it's business as usual. Now the horrifying thing about Memphis is nobody's regulating things that are being done or the things that are being said. None of them, even the officers that aren't directly involved around them, were like, oh shit, this is bad. It does not seem like this is an unusual event for them. And it's probably not outside the norm, unfortunately.
So now my opinion about body cams has changed. Where they help the officers. Great. Maybe it will improve public confidence. Where it exposes problems with officer conduct. Great. They can course correct.
Marcy: And the video is important because it shows the divergence between what the officers said happened and reality.
Mark: Yeah. And that's really important evidence because it shows the intent. What the officers wrote in the reports that Nichols did would justify their higher use of force. They said he made an attempt to take an officer's weapon. That action justifies a very high level of force, particularly if the person doing the gun grab is likely to overpower the officer.
Marcy: What do you think of folks that are saying all specialty units should be disbanded?
Mark: I think the people who say things like that don't appreciate what a bad idea that is.
First of all, there are all kinds of specialty units that people accept that do critical work in our cities and our towns. These are two varied to give a complete list, but you've heard of 'em, crime scene, sex assault, robbery, homicide units, search and rescue teams. I think what people are talking about is they want to disband all the specialty units that are street focused.
Historically, we've had some pretty notorious police teams. I think of LAPD's crash unit that comes to mind. Crash is an acronym that stood for community response against street hoodlums. That group was rife with the kind of problems I suspect Scorpion might have in Memphis. So maybe we should just do away all the units with aggressive acronyms.
Marcy: Some people have been bandying about the need for police culture change.
Mark: Yeah. I think that some departments probably do need a drastic culture change and others not so much. I think the key is training. Having the right instructors, the right instruction all the way from the academy and into the field. Supervision. You have to have good supervision.
When I became a supervisor, my outlook shifted and broadened. We need good supervisors who can catch problems early, before they become ingrained and out-of-control police culture.
Marcy: You supervised a street level specialty unit.
Mark: That's why I'm sold that not all these units should be disbanded. My feeling on specialty units is that they can be in what is termed in military terminology, a force multiplier. For the last few years of my career, I was given a unit with seven investigators and a wide latitude to define our focus.
What I did was I looked at what other successful anti-crime and crime suppression units were doing, and I basically borrowed from them. I divided that unit into two areas. First investigative support, using the skills and contacts from my detective days, we assisted in helping solve and helping move forward some of the city's most pressing investigations and crimes.
Second, I picked targeted projects. With the help of crime mapping, I researched the city's hotspots, and we came up with creative solutions, how to solve some of those.
The whole thing would take too long to fully cover now, but my small unit was able to achieve the closure of several of Anchorage's most crime-ridden dangerous businesses in a relatively short amount of time.
Marcy: And that is a very different approach from what patrol usually does or has the capacity to do.
Mark: Yeah, usually patrol is. Completely responsive. They run call to call. They don't have the time or generally the equipment or expertise to work a community hotspot like we did. And we were very successful. We closed down the worst doper flop hotel in town. A huge building like multi stories called the Inlet Inn. What caught our attention is patrol went there hundreds of times a year for all kinds of crime. You can think about murders, robberies, sex assault. My unit, we took a couple of months and we surveilled the area. We looked at what was going on. We built the case, and we pressured the owner to close it. And they did, and we worked with them to achieve that closure and to keep the problems in that particular hotel from spreading. Now that den of villainy is a quiet parking lot with zero police calls.
Okay. So back to the force multiplier. Here's another example. We had an after-hours club. It popped up as a hotspot because people were doing all kinds of violent crimes in the area, in the wee morning hours and in the area just surrounding, it wasn't in the bar zone or anything, so it was really an island in its own.
I was able to call the building owner, who was leasing space, to the club. It was upstairs in if you live in Anchorage's Mountain View area. So I was able to call the building owner, and at first the owner didn't wanna do anything.
Oh, the cops are calling. Who cares? They're just doing their business. And I'm like, no, this is a serious problem. There are crimes being occurred in your building and around your building. And they wouldn't be if you weren't open. And these things weren't going on. So what I did, I knew it was gonna motivate him, is I had gotten permission to leverage insurance coverage against some of these owners.
And I told them, I know who your insurance carrier is, and I'm going to inform them of some of these crimes that you are helping to create, helping to house and some of the surrounding crimes. And we'll see what happens. That business owner said, you're right, we'll take care of it. I'm gonna give them an eviction notice and they will stop operation immediately.
Our night shift patrol had been working collateral crimes from that club for weeks before it caught my attention. They had been going there; they took care of the call; they went away, a little research from me and one pointed phone call and it was over. So that's an example of why I say a blanket ban on specialty street units is a bad idea.
I didn't beat anyone to achieve that, but we were very effective. The brass loved what we did, and as I was retiring, they planned to double the size of my eight man unit while retaining the same areas of focus that I had defined a few years prior.
As we wrap up, I wanted to say something about these cases and the breach of trust. There are almost a million police officers in this country. In my experience, the profession is an honorable one, filled with honorable men and women that care deeply about the communities they police. The damage that these cases do to public trust is immeasurable.
They destroy our credibility and our legitimacy. My hope is that we can rebuild the trust in the coming years.
Marcy: I am sure that there will continue to be more that comes out as these cases roll forward. I hope that Tyre Nichols' family gets the justice that they deserve. Tyre was a talented artist, and he didn't deserve to be murdered.
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