This story was originally published by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Subscribe to their newsletter here.
When he died on Jan. 10, Tyre Nichols joined a long list of Black Americans who have been killed as a result of police violence: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Philando Castile, Atatiana Jefferson, Botham Jean, Alton Sterling, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown.
During a nighttime traffic stop in Hickory Hill on Jan. 7, several Memphis Police Department officers in the so-called Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods unit shocked with a stun gun, chased and beat Nichols nearly to death. The brutal encounter left Nichols, 29, unrecognizable, unconscious and hospitalized on life support for three days before his death.
That night, Nichols also joined a growing list of Black Memphians who have been brutalized or killed by the city’s police department during traffic stops. In the last decade, at least three people have been killed by MPD during traffic stops: Anjustine Hunter, Darrius Stewart and D’Mario Perkins. At least two people have been wounded by MPD during traffic stops: Martavious Banks and Rhonda Rawls.
On Tuesday, the Memphis City Council will hold a three-hour Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee meeting session discussing Nichols’ case, reforms and solutions to MPD officers’ excessive use of force. Among other things, the council will consider a cluster of ordinances that would limit and track MPD’s pretextual traffic stop practices and end the department’s reliance on specialized units, like the now-disbanded SCORPION Unit responsible for killing Nichols.
Called the Public Safety Data Transparency Ordinance and sponsored by Vice Chairman JB Smiley Jr., and City Councilman Chase Carlisle, the aim is to increase the public’s knowledge and access to information about MPD’s traffic stops and use-of-force incidents by requiring the department to track and self-report each incident, including documentation of location, reason, demographic, result and other detailed information.
“I think our responsibility as the legislative body of Memphis City Council is to put as [many] restrictions and as much oversight around our police department as possible, so if someone steps outside the scope of their authority, they know for sure they’re gonna be held accountable,” Smiley said.
The creation of the ordinances comes from the work of DeCarcerate Memphis based on its “Driving While BIPOC” report, which shows a systemic pattern of police misusing their power to target and harass Black and low-income residents in Memphis through pretextual traffic stops.
“In these pretext stops, in [MPD’s] view, what they’re trying to do is stop violent criminals, so people get treated with extreme aggression and extreme suspicion in these traffic stops. That is what led to the death of Tyre Nichols,” DeCarcerate Memphis steering committee member Joshua Adams said.
DeCarcerate Memphis’ “Driving While BIPOC” report is made up of the city’s traffic stop and citation data compiled from 2017 to 2021, and it shows Black and low-income drivers are regularly pulled over and cited at a higher frequency than their white, wealthier counterparts.
But it only scratches the surface of how drivers in Memphis — especially Black men — are regularly stopped by police. Many are met with violence that goes unreported.
That includes Lakethen Mason who has never publicly told his story. While driving home from work, commuting from Midtown to Downtown, late one night in November, the 49-year-old documentary filmmaker, photographer and founder of Memphis Film Works, stopped to grab a cup of coffee. He noticed an MPD car trailing him for a few blocks before the officer flickered his blue lights, signaling a traffic stop. Mason drove a couple more blocks into a well-lit area before pulling over.
“It’s one thing to be pulled over on a main street. It’s another thing to be pulled over as a Black man on a dark street,” Mason said.
That choice apparently angered the police officer, Mason said. The officer stormed out of his car, and said, “What’s wrong with you? You don’t want to pull over for me? Give me your driver’s license right now.’”
Mason replied. “I said ‘OK, can you calm down? At this moment, I’m not giving you anything until I understand what happened. Like why did you pull me over.’”
The officer said Mason was driving with an expired tag and immediately called for backup, claiming Mason was refusing to cooperate with law enforcement. But, while waiting for backup, the officer tried to forcibly remove Mason from his vehicle. Things only escalated from there.
“I panicked emotionally,” Mason said. “Because if you’re willing to reach inside of my truck and grab me and my door, I don’t know what you’re going to do.”
Mason said he let his window up to create a protective barrier between himself and the disgruntled officer. Soon, the police presence multiplied from one car and one officer, to several cars flashing blue lights and six officers. Other MPD officers on the scene were trying to diffuse the situation, but the officer who pulled over Mason refused to calm down.
“The officer went to the right side of my [truck]…and he used the bottom of his baton to bash my window,” Mason said. “I had to surrender because I didn’t know what to do. This [was] crazy. I was ready to die.”
After the officer busted the window, another officer realized he recognized Mason from his work with Memphis Film Works, vouched for Mason and calmed the irate officer down. Mason’s wallet was confiscated by MPD, and he was transported to a nearby mental health facility, where they released him almost immediately due to no sign of drugs, alcohol or mental illness.
It took days to recover his wallet, ID and bank cards, which were found by a good Samaritan strewn around a trash can in Overton Park.
Mason said he spent weeks battling depression, trying to make sense of what happened.
“I started thinking, ‘Could I have done something differently? Could I have been nicer to this officer? Could I have begged him not to scare me? I don’t know…’ It wasn’t a terrible outcome because I’m still alive,” Mason said, grimly.
Between 2017 and 2021, Black drivers in Memphis were disproportionately targeted during traffic stops, accounting for 75% of citations, although Black residents make up 65% of the city’s population, the “Driving While BIPOC” report shows. Black drivers were also two times more likely than white drivers to receive multiple citations in one ticket. The data also show traffic stops are concentrated in low-income ZIP codes in Memphis. Currently, MPD says it does not know how many or the demographics of traffic stops the department conducts.
In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, which sparked uprisings across the country and right here in Memphis, the city council adopted new policies to increase transparency and safety in MPD’s practices: “Eight Can’t Wait” policies, which outline eight restrictive use of force requirements MPD officers must abide by when in the field, and the ISB Dashboard, which details the number and types of complaints against MPD officers and other departmental policies.
Between pushback from law enforcement and earning support from his fellow council members, Smiley recalls it being an uphill battle to get to this point of reform in 2020.
“Essentially, the [Memphis] Police Association and police department were like ‘we don’t do anything wrong. We already do everything right. Leave us alone,’” Smiley said.
Those policies weren’t enough to prevent Nichols’ death. Based on the video evidence of Nichols’ beating, it appears MPD officers violated four of their own “Eight Can’t Wait” policies: require de-escalation, duty to intervene, require use of force continuum and require comprehensive reporting. Those policy violations are the basis of why six MPD officers have now been fired following Nichols’ beating death.
DeCarcerate Memphis is pushing the council to take a few steps further and institute what they call “non-reform solutions” to actually check and track the power MPD wields over citizens during traffic stops.
“There’s this culture of…over-suspicion and over-scrutiny of Black people and the desire to control Black people with violence and in criminal charges, and that culture is what created the police,” said Adams with DeCarcerate Memphis. “You can’t reform it out. You can’t train it out. You just simply have to keep the police from interacting with the Black people.”
Like Mason, Brandon Weston was pulled over by Memphis police late one night in November as he was leaving a friend’s house in Germantown, going to his home in Cordova. Weston noticed a police officer trailing him and began driving cautiously, but it was too late. The officer turned on his blue lights.
That traffic stop wasn’t Weston’s first encounter with police. He said he’s been pulled over by MPD at least four times, with his first traffic stop at the age of 18 in Frayser for a rolling stop. Weston had just begun driving.
The 28-year-old music producer and rapper was pulled over that night, he said, because of a tinted license plate cover. The officer approached Weston’s car and asked if he had anything in the car. Weston replied honestly, admitting he had a firearm and a small amount of weed.
“I [had] to tell him the truth. I [didn’t] want to lie because he was going to search [the car] anyway … At this point, I’m thinking I’m going to jail.” Within the first two minutes of the stop, the officer had instructed Weston to step out of his car and sit on the curb.
The officer continued to question Weston, asking if he had a job, what he planned to do with his life, who he admired in the music industry and other questions about his personal life. Weston said he answered each question honestly as backup police officers filed onto the scene to continue searching his vehicle.
Weston was on the curb for nearly an hour but wasn’t arrested. An officer finally returned to inform him that his license was suspended and issued misdemeanor citations for a suspended license, firearm possession and marijuana possession.
He is still going to court trying to resolve the charges. He’s also working with a defense attorney who claimed the police were “fishing” for incriminating evidence and information during the traffic stop.
DeCarcerate Memphis first went before the Memphis City Council with the proposed ordinance on Dec. 6, one month and one day before Nichols was killed. The organization immediately garnered Smiley’s support. He views this current wave of ordinances as a continuation of reforms that began in 2020.
“I just think [these ordinances] put us closer to justice. I don’t think the family can ever receive true justice. True justice is Tyre Nichols still taking pictures, still skating in the park,” Smiley said.
Currently, the Memphis Police Department and the Memphis Fire Department receive the overwhelming majority of the city’s $750 million operating budget: 64% or $479 million. On the other hand, Housing and Community Development receive just 0.6%, Library Services receive 3%, Parks receive 5% and Public Works receives 2%.
DeCarcerate Memphis’ Chelsea Glass said the city’s budget reflects an over-reliance on police as the only solution to public safety. She invites the public to reimagine what safe communities look like from a different vantage point: funding affordable housing, funding affordable healthcare, funding quality public education, instituting a citywide living wage, offering more grocery stores with affordable, healthy food and supporting small businesses.
“The largest line item and budget expense year after year after year goes to policing,” Glass said. “What if we talked about proactive safety instead of proactive policing?”