Does the Memphis police beating offer any takeaways for local police and citizens?
Many police leaders around the U.S. have denounced the Memphis officers' use of force, including Fargo's police chief who said Nichols' death was due to the officers' horrendous criminal actions.
FARGO — The fatal encounter between a driver in Memphis, Tennessee, and members of a special police unit is sparking conversations across the country about what the takeaways may be for officers and the citizens they are meant to serve.
Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old black man, died three days after suffering a beating that involved a number of black officers who have since been fired. Five of those former officers have been charged with second-degree murder in Nichols' death.
Videos of the beating showed the multiple times that officers shouted confusing and contradictory orders at Nichols, a New York Times analysis found.
Many police leaders around the country have denounced the Memphis officers' use of force, including Fargo Police Chief David Zibolski who said Nichols' death was due to the officers' horrendous criminal actions.
"We believe that all human life has value and deserves respect. We are committed to treating those we serve in a compassionate, courteous and dignified manner. Anything less will not be tolerated in Fargo," Zibolski said in a statement .
Matuor Alier, a member of the Fargo Human Rights Commission, said the "really, really horrible" situation in Memphis "is an example for all of us to better ourselves, to better our community and to never get to where they are right now (in Memphis)."
Alier said the Memphis beating reinforces the importance of cameras in helping sort out the truth of what actually happened in a given situation, particularly those that result in controversy.
In the Memphis case, Alier said, "If they weren't recorded, police would have just made up their own story to protect themselves. Now, it's in everybody's eyes. You can judge for yourself."
Alier added that cameras can also protect officers from false claims and he stressed that people value the work police do and they want to be protected.
What the public doesn't want, he said, are officers who abuse the power they are given.
"I hope that whatever happened in Memphis will never happen here," Alier said, adding that he's optimistic about the current leadership of the Fargo Police Department and the direction they are taking the agency.
Craig Stowell, a retired law enforcement officer from the St. Cloud, Minnesota, area who trained other officers in crisis intervention and de-escalation techniques, said he believes de-escalation training can reduce violent interactions between officers and the public.
Stowell said that after a training program he helped develop was adopted by the Stearns County Jail many years ago the jail saw an 80% drop in officer injuries.
Before a situation becomes physical, there are often things officers can do to calm the waters, even if someone is already ramped up emotionally, Stowell said. By taking the time to introduce themselves and ask people about what's been going on with them an officer can often give the person they are dealing with the space to collect themselves a bit, he said.
"If you start out aggressive, guess where it goes?" said Stowell, who retired from law enforcement about two years ago.
Kerry Rosenquist, a Grand Forks defense attorney who's also a municipal judge and a former police officer, said he's watched videos of the Memphis incident.
And though he said it remains unclear exactly what precipitated the incident, "in no way would the officers be justified in beating a handcuffed suspect, or Macing a handcuffed subject. There's absolutely no reason for that, other than vigilantism."
Asked whether he had any advice for drivers who want to do what they can to make sure interactions with law enforcement go as smoothly as possible, Rosenquist said his personal approach is to make sure he has things like his drivers license and proof of insurance always at the ready.
Rosenquist said it's also advisable to follow an officer's reasonable requests and, in general, if an officer has probable cause to suspect someone of drunken driving, a driver must submit to testing or face legal consequences.
A driver may "politely refuse" other requests an officer might make to discern intoxication, such as being asked to walk a straight line, said Rosenquist, who added that if a driver disagrees with an officer regarding something like whether they were speeding, the courtroom is the time and place to argue their point, not the traffic stop.
"You're not going to gain anything by arguing with an officer," Rosenquist said.
Moorhead Police Capt. Deric Swenson said police departments in many places, including Moorhead, are striving to maintain professional standards and earn the public's confidence at a time when it has become more and more difficult to attract and keep good officers.
"Not everyone can do this job, not everyone should do this job," said Swenson, who added that at any given time in Minnesota there may be 80 to 120 agencies advertising for open positions.
Swenson said when he started in law enforcement in the early 2000s, law enforcement job openings across the state averaged about five to 10.
Trying to attract and keep good officers while providing just the right amount of oversight without micromanaging officers is a constant and difficult balance, according to Swenson, who stressed that Moorhead police take citizen concerns and complaints seriously.
"We try to be transparent with how we do our oversight," Swenson said, adding that that process starts at the sergeant level on every use of force and every citizen complaint and it goes "all the way up to the chief of police on every single one of those.
"That's to ensure we still have that appropriate oversight of our people," added Swenson, who noted that the Moorhead Police Department recently purchased body cameras for officers and it's anticipated officers will begin using the cameras in April.