The Tragedy of Tyre Nichols: Police Culture’s Erosion of the Conscience

Racism is often believed to contribute to police brutality, and many understand America as a divided nation: black America and white America. Given this perspective, as shocked as we may have been by the callousness and brutality shown by the police and specifically Officer Chauvin concerning George Floyd, we could, perhaps, understand why it happened. Given the racial tensions in America and the history of white supremacy, many could analyze the tragedy through our cultural construct—a white racist police officer maliciously ended the life of a helpless black man. As much as we of course detest the actions, we probably find some comfort in understanding why it occurred. For if we understand why, then we are at least on the right road to find a solution to the problem. If the brutality can be understood primarily as a consequence of racism, then we must address this factor in law enforcement.
The death of Tyre Nichols, however, shatters our paradigm. Tyre’s beating came at the hands of five African-American police officers. Once again, we are outraged by the behavior of police officers, yet unlike George Floyd and many past incidents of police violence against African Americans, can we still be sure that police brutality is solely a matter of white supremacy and racism? Attorney Ben Crump addressed the heart of the issue in his comments to the media after the five Memphis Police Officers were indicted. He noted, the problem of institutionalized police culture, and the need to call it out.
I will do just that in this article, and I will do so not from the outside looking in, but from the inside—as a tenured officer of twenty-four years on an urban police department. In doing so, I will argue the police culture tends to erode the conscience leaving officers apathetic, oppressive, and violent—regardless of the officer’s race. This article supplements my original work in the forthcoming book Rethinking the Police: An Officer’s Confession and a Pathway to Reform that deals more comprehensively with police culture, ethics, systemic racism, and brutality. My lens for analysis in this article, however, is distinct and will come from a Reformed Christian perspective. I will explain the ethical framework for analysis by briefly providing the reader with a general understanding of the natural law tradition in Christian thought before focusing on natural law and human conscience from the Reformed tradition, specifically from Reformed Ethics by Herman Bavinck. Then, I will provide a basic understanding of social structures before exposing three dangerous aspects of the police culture. Lastly, I will show how these dangerous aspects of police culture can erode the conscience of officers in a way that promotes police brutality against African Americans regardless of the officer’s race.

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