Like others, I suspect, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the issue of excessive force used by law enforcement. Police shootings of citizens occur almost daily, but as is evident in the case of 29-year-old Memphis resident Tyre Nichols, firearms don’t have to be in the equation for policing in communities of color to become violent and lethal.
Nichols was stopped for a traffic violation on Jan. 7 that turned into an altercation, a chase, a brutal beating, and days later his death as a result of his injuries. Officer body-camera and other police video show the horrific and escalating force of that night. The Black officers involved in, or witness to, Nichols’ beating were indicted, fired, and now face murder charges. The special police unit—for high-crime areas—that retained these officers was disbanded, and other police, fire and EMT personnel have, or will, face additional disciplinary action.
This latest example of excessive use of force by police comes 32 years after another videotaped police beating of another Black male motorist.
After a police chase, Rodney King was ordered out of his automobile and assaulted. I watched appalled as four Los Angeles police officers kicked and clubbed King for 15 minutes. A bystander caught the confrontation on camera in what even police leadership called an aberration. Police use of excessive force was ubiquitous 30 years ago, but personal video devices were not, and I remember thinking at the time that this footage will finally prove to white America what Black America already knows—law enforcement doesn’t protect and serve all its citizens. Some it brutalizes. But real-time images, obviously, didn’t have the influence they do now, and despite the recording of King’s vicious beating, a jury found that the officers in the case—three of them white—acted within the purview of their authority. That verdict incited the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
Thankfully, there were no riots in Memphis when Nichols’ videotaped beating was broadcast to the public. Most credit the quick and decisive acts of justice by police leadership and local prosecutors for quelling what could have been a backlash of outrage. Those actions prove a lot has changed in societal attitudes about policing since 1992. Unfortunately, not enough to have saved George Floyd in 2020.
Another video by another bystander allowed us to watch as Floyd struggled for air and life under the knee of a Minneapolis policeman. That eight minutes and 46 seconds of video further galvanized public perception about the misuse of police power and proved fundamental to the prosecution’s case against the officers involved.
Ninety years ago, another Black man was killed by a police officer acting under the authority of the laws and rules of the times. Robert Harrington was the same age as Tyre Nichols, 29, when he was shot multiple times by Birmingham Alabama police for what a newspaper account called “resisting arrest.” Harrington was a master wood carver from St. Petersburg, Florida who had moved with his pregnant wife and young daughter to work on the homes of the bustling steel industry moguls of the “Magic City.” Driving a new car and having been seen around town with his wife who could pass for white, he’d been in Birmingham only a few months before he was beaten and shot.
Jim Crow police forces had members who wore blue uniforms by day and white sheets by night. Birmingham’s police department was no different, and were notorious for enforcing the strict, and draconian, laws of segregation with threats, and force. In Birmingham those laws and rules were dubbed the “black codes.” Police boasted and joked about the beating they’d given Harrington, and his enraged wife, Anna Kate, was vociferous in her anger and complaints about the police. Not something Black people did in those times, and for her own safety she fled Birmingham in secrecy.
Robert and Anna Kate were my grandparents. There were no bystanders with phones or video cameras, no police investigation, and no protests over his death.
The Civil Rights & Restorative Justice Project, based at Northeastern University School of Law has recorded more than 150 incidents of police violence against Black citizens in Alabama in the years 1930-1970. In a report released by CRRJ, at least 144 African Americans were killed by police officers during that period, and 129 of those incidents occurred in Jefferson County, where Birmingham is the county seat. The CRRJ cases are the ones where researchers were able to identify a paper trail, and were primarily police shootings. One can only imagine the countless other assaults and shootings—in this century and last—that were unwitnessed, undocumented, and will remain forgotten.
I’ve written a novel about my grandfather’s police shooting—a response to the pain and anger I felt watching the Floyd video. In my research I pored over the archives of Black newspapers dating to the early 20th century, and marveled at what has changed for Black people in America, and what hasn’t. My biggest takeaway: the news and headlines offered in those early publications are painfully similar to those sparking today’s national conversation about race, social justice, and policing.
Last year, 2022, marked the highest number of shooting fatalities by on-duty police officers in this country since tracking began in 2015. Nearly a quarter of those killed last year were Black citizens. Sadly, we’re off to a troubling start in 2023. Through the last week in January, reports from local police departments indicate there have been 79 police shooting fatalities. Race identifiers aren’t clear, because police departments either did not report the race of the deceased, or as is the case in most of these incidents, body camera documentation is not available.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act—addressing racial bias, excessive use of force by police, and aiming to reduce misconduct by law enforcement officers—was introduced in Congress two years ago this month. It passed the House but stalled in the U.S. Senate. The bill has an ambitious agenda with elements that will inevitably lead to extensive negotiations between federal, state, and local agencies, and police unions. But there are two, very common-sense, and actionable components, that would immediately point American policing on a path toward equal treatment for all citizens, in all its communities.
“I wish there had been some police accountability when my grandfather was killed almost a century ago.”
First, establish a federal registry of police misconduct complaints and officer disciplinary actions. It’s a forthright and prudent idea. This information, if reported at all, resides in unlinked databases that don’t allow law enforcement agencies to properly vet officers who transfer from one police force to another.
Second, mandate that all police officers use body cameras and dashboard cameras. A no-brainer. These images speak louder than a thousand excuses, fabrications, and differences of opinion about what constitutes excessive force.
I wish there had been some police accountability when my grandfather was killed almost a century ago—an investigation that would shed light on the circumstances of his death. It would have given my family closure, and maybe some peace. Because there was not, grandpa is just another tragic example of what can result when Black citizens, and disproportionately Black men, interact with the police on any day of any month in America.
Cheryl A. Head (she/her) is the author, most recently, of the novel “Times Undoing”. She is a writer, television producer, and broadcast executive. She is also the author of the award-winning Charlie Mack Motown mysteries, whose female PI protagonist is queer and Black. Head is an Anthony Award nominee, a two-time Lambda Literary Award finalist, a three-time Next Generation Indie Book Award finalist, and winner of the Golden Crown Literary Society’s Ann Bannon Popular Choice Award. Her books are included in the Detroit Public Library’s African-American Booklist and in the Special Collections of the Library of Michigan.