The death last month of Tyre Nichols at the hands of the Memphis Police is distinctive mainly because we know Tyre’s name and how he died. Tyre Nichols joined George Floyd, Michael Brown, 12-year-old Tamir Rice, and the relatively few other Black men whose deaths were reported in the media. The rest remain nameless and faceless, except to the people who loved them.
The Ethical Humanist community is committed to creating a more humane environment and a culture of peace and justice for all people, including those who interact with law enforcement. Humane cultures and cultures of peace ascribe intrinsic worth to all people and assume all equally deserve to be treated with dignity. Such cultures reject the use of inhumane procedures and tactics in law enforcement, especially when those established procedures lead to death.
We do not know how many people are killed by police in the United States each year. Local police departments are not required to report officer-involved deaths to the FBI or any other agency. The FBI maintains a database of National Use-of-Force, but the database relies on voluntary reporting from local police departments, many of which choose not to report these incidents.
According to the information voluntarily submitted to the FBI, police kill about 1,000 people each year. However, an independent analysis by The Washington Post found that officer-involved shootings are probably significantly under-counted because of incomplete reporting. Black Americans, about 14% of the population, accounted for almost one-third of known fatal police encounters. Of that one-third, 17% of those killed were unarmed, as was Tyre Nichols at the time of his death. This is a higher rate than almost any other group and more than twice the rate of White Americans.
The dangers of dehumanization
In a culture of violence, the first step in attacking an opponent is to dehumanize your adversary. It is easier to kill an individual when you no longer see them as human. This dehumanization has many causes, not the least of which is systemic racism. Racism itself is an act of dehumanization.
Dehumanization also occurs during police training. From the beginning of their careers, police officers are trained to have a warrior mindset in which the primary goal is to not be killed or seriously injured on the job. This stems from the very real threats faced by law enforcement every day. Police have a dangerous job with a significant risk of harm or even death.
The warrior mindset training becomes a problem when it metastasizes into a mentality in which every individual, regardless of the actual threat, becomes an enemy to be met with deadly force. The militarization of civilian police includes more than just tanks and other military-grade equipment. It’s a mindset, an underlying philosophy of police work that pervades police departments across the United States. From this perspective, questions like “Why did you stop me?” are viewed as defiance. Every move, even when trying to obey conflicting commands from multiple officers, is seen by police as a threat. Fists, clubs, tasers, and guns are no longer defensive weapons but are instead used to punish individuals on the spot, even after they have been subdued and pose no threat.
What to do:
- Demand humane treatment with zero tolerance for excessive force. While we recognize the unique self-defense needs of police, the attack on Tyre Nichols was not done in self-defense.
- Ask local police departments to examine the use of Warrior Cop training and how that training affects the behavior of police in non-violent encounters.
- Demand that police training includes conflict resolution and de-escalation skills. Pulling out a weapon should not be an officer’s first response in a non-threatening situation.
- Stand by to witness and possibly record interactions between the police and individuals who might be at risk. Your presence alone may reduce the risk of police violence, although this is not guaranteed. Your testimony may lead to the conviction of police who abuse their position.
A threat to one person’s humanity is a threat to the humanity of us all.
In the Ethical tradition, we ascribe worth to every person. All people deserve justice. Police practices which see people, and especially people in marginalized communities, as “the enemy” inevitably result in police murders, disproportionately of Black people. They cannot produce a just society. We demand an end to police murders and the practices that encourage them.
Resolutions that apply to this statement:
This statement originally appeared at aeu.org.