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Harvard Kennedy School Professor Cornell Williams Brooks said policing in the United States is in a “state of crisis” at a Harvard Institute of Politics Forum Monday evening.
The event highlighted the high-profile killing of Tyre Nichols, who died in early January three days after a violent traffic stop in which Memphis police officers repeatedly beat Nichols, according to body camera and surveillance footage released by the Memphis Police Department. Five police officers in the case, which sparked nationwide uproar over police brutality, have since been fired and charged with various felonies, including second-degree murder.
The discussion, titled “A Conversation about Policing and Racial Justice,” also featured Kennedy School professors Sandra Susan Smith and Yanilnda María González and was moderated by IOP Interim Director Setti D. Warren.
Despite the nationwide backlash following Nichols’ killing, Warren noted the case did not garner the same media attention and public uproar as the murder of George Floyd, which led to mass protests across the country during the summer of 2020.
Gonzalez said she believes three factors account for the differences in public reactions to the two cases: a normalization of police violence, the fact that the police officers in the case are Black, and the “preeminent” arrest of the officers.
“We have collectively let ourselves off the hook in grappling at a more deep level with the killing of Tyre Nichols,” she said.
Brooks, who served as the 18th president of the NAACP, said he believes the Memphis police chief chose to release video footage of the case as quickly as possible in order to manage the public’s response to Nichols’ killing.
“Literally the entire country is waiting to find out whether or not Memphis is going to go up in smoke,” he said. “And let’s be absolutely clear: The fact that these were Black officers has a little more than something to do with how quickly they were prosecuted and the charges that were brought.”
Smith said police killing cases have a widespread impact in the places they occur, citing an HKS study that found that residential areas in which a police killing recently took place see higher rates of school absences, lower GPAs, and lower graduation and college matriculation rates.
“It’s not just about the individuals who have been brutalized and their immediate family, it’s about the communities who are impacted by that brutalization,” she said. “It’s about the children who stopped going to school because of the impact it’s having on them.”
“This causes a kind of harm that sticks with us. This is what Black and brown people are carrying in their daily lives,” Smith added.
Smith said she believes cities can “decenter” police by training a civilian force to enforce traffic laws and creating crisis intervention mobile units of individuals trained in EMT and crisis resolution.
Brooks also criticized the lack of policy changes in police departments across the country following Floyd’s murder.
“There’s no other industry in the country that is literally in a state of crisis and, to the equal degree, in a state of collective self-denial,” Brooks said.
—Staff writer Asher J. Montgomery can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @asherjmont.
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