Mourners gathered last week in Memphis, Tenn. to remember Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man who was fiercely beaten by police officers.
His death has renewed calls for police reform nationally and in Minnesota, at a time when public confidence in police continues to drop and some police departments struggle to retain officers.
MPR News host Angela Davis talks with two Black Minnesota police chiefs about what went wrong in Memphis and the future of policing.
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Roger New is the Eagan police chief. He was appointed in 2018 and has served 29 years in the department.
Booker Hodges was appointed police chief in Bloomington last year and previously served as assistant commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.
Here are five key moments from the conversation.
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Click the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.
What are your thoughts after you learned about what happened to Tyre Nichols?
Roger New: When I watched the video I happened to be on vacation and I have to say, it got me sick. I considered turning off the video and stopped watching it just because I was so sick of what I was seeing: people wearing the uniform just like myself. I forced myself to watch the entire 40 minutes trying to process how this all took place and what went wrong. There were many failures that took place on January 7 in Memphis involving these officers. At the end of it, I was frustrated, angry, I had a range of emotions that ran through me and I just wanted the opportunity to talk about it.
There are three things that came to mind and that the Chief in Memphis should be looking at:
Training: how come they weren't working collectively to take Mr. Nichols into custody?
Oversight: Who was managing that scene? At the time when Mr. Nichols started running on when they were in the neighborhood meeting?
The screening process: How did these people get in the door? How are they part of this unit?
Booker Hodges: I was disturbed by the video, it was absolutely terrible what they did to him. My reaction to that video was the same as when I watched Black people getting shot in the street, or when people are getting murdered. I don't like to see people getting victimized. Period. I realized I'm in a different place than most, but I value life and what you're seeing there was a complete and utter disrespect for humanity. Unfortunately, what happened on that street corner is reflective of where we're at in our society with regard to our respect for each and every one of our humanity.
When there are people who don’t respect humanity, not even having a body camera matters. I'm going to add a little something that Chief New didn't say that I observed, and it's the same thing that I observed in the video of George Floyd getting murdered: there was no sergeant or supervisor on that scene. The most important people in any law enforcement organization are your frontline supervisors, their job is more important than mine because they are out there day in and day out dealing with our officers. I've been a cop now for 18 years and I can't imagine the situation. I don't understand how that happened. I'm speechless about that.
How does race enter into this encounter?
Roger New: It's not about someone's race, it's about humanity. Far too often, we immediately run to race as being the mechanism of what took place. If you go back to George Floyd, you had an Asian officer, two white officers and a Black officer involved in that incident, and we were talking about race. We all take an oath of office when we do this job, we commit to upholding the Constitution of the State of Minnesota and to the United States of America. Those Memphis officers didn't do it that day. People expect us from a law enforcement standpoint, to be trustful, and to do our job. It wasn't about race, it was about the failure of some people wearing the uniform that day.
Booker Hodges: I don’t agree with the idea that Black cops are not exempt from anti-Black policing. Viewing this as a race incident is the easy way out, but when you start talking about humanity, that's something we all got to own, and that was a complete lack of disrespect for humanity. They didn't respect him as a human. If you victimize people, and you show disrespect for humanity, you get orange jumpsuits, and that's what they got. If you victimize people while having a uniform on, you cease being a cop and you become a criminal.
How does the police union make it difficult to get rid of poor-performing officers?
Roger New: Long story short, each officer, as well as the school teachers, are entitled to all things due process because of their contractual agreements with their employer. We try to work closely with our union and to be as transparent as we can. I haven't necessarily seen many roadblocks, per se, with regard to unions. I think we need to get back to a place of holding people accountable. Accountability still means something and it creates a sense of safety and security for people when they're at home.
Booker Hodges: I'm going to probably take a little bit of a different approach. In Bloomington, our union is phenomenal. When I was in the Troopers Union and the BCA union, they were all great to work with. But there was one agency where the Union did present some challenges. I had an administrative role at that agency when there was a Supreme Court decision that allowed members to decide that they could opt out of the union and not have to pay fair share dues. When that happened, some unions decided that in order to maintain members, they were going to start to take the fight more to the administrations.
What are your thoughts about the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act that hasn’t been moving up in congress?
Booker Hodges: I think the part that's getting hung up is the qualified immunity piece. For people to understand, that means if you work for the government, and something happens, you're going to be indemnified or the government is going to cover civil expenses. In Minnesota, if you're negligent of your duties, you're not going to be indemnified. The Supreme Court's already ruled in favor of qualified immunity, so I think that's what the main hold up in the legislation.
Roger New: I also think qualified immunity is a key component of that. It was interesting, because about a year or so ago, I was having a conversation with one of our local representatives, and they talked about how they had qualified immunity and they didn't have to provide a deposition for something they were part of. I'm not going to name who that individual was, but I will just simply say that I think that is a big component of why this legislation hasn't moved forward.
What would you like to see happen in the state legislature?
Booker Hodges: the Department of Homeland Security had a list of what would be considered domestic extremist groups. I said bottom line: I don't want a white supremacist working here. I don't want a Black supremacist or an Asian supremacist. I don't want a terrorist. I don't want any of these people working in my organization. So how about you pass something or write something that includes all those folks in the accountability piece? Historically, have police officers been held accountable for their actions? No. I think this is a phenomenon that started to take place in the last 10 years. Now police officers are getting held accountable. Derek Chauvin for instance, he got fired, he got an orange jumpsuit and he's in prison. I don't care who you are, you victimize people and you go to jail.
Roger New: One of the biggest things as Chiefs of police is being able to embrace the conversation of what change looks like. I think before we start creating these rules, we need to sit alongside law enforcement and understand exactly what's taking place in law enforcement agencies. I would say, at least in my organization, there is accountability for people. We're not giving people passes. The Chief in Memphis put those folks on administrative leave immediately. There's a criminal process that needs to take place too. They were charged and they were held accountable. Sometimes, when we see these polarizing incidents in the news, we begin to think there's no accountability, but there is stuff being done. I would say policing is far different today, in 2023, than it was in 1994. I'm hopeful that it will continue to improve as we move forward.
Your opinions on policing
Listeners called into the show and shared their opinions. Here are a couple of them.
‘Race plays a very important role in this cycle’
The Chief stated that this is about humanity. I agree. However, is the immensity of how society has taught folks to treat Black life. So even though the cops are Black, they don't respect Black life. So yes, it's about humanity, but race plays a very important role in this whole cycle. One of the Chiefs also talked about psychology, we know that psychology itself has a basis in racism, so there's bias in the assessment.
— Edwin in Brooklyn Center
‘We need a major structural change’
I think most officers are decent people. I'm old school, I wave to police cars going down the street when I'm out walking. But we have a serious problem with a lack of accountability in the profession as well and repeated instances of monstrous behavior over and over. I think we do need major structural change to get something different going on. It's much easier to lose your license as a lawyer than a cop. I think getting rid of qualified immunity is a step in the right direction. It doesn't mean suing politicians, it means that when someone acts like Derek Chauvin, for example, or those gentlemen in Memphis, they can be sued personally. There are structural things we can do to put the hammer down on some of this behavior.
— Ed in Brainerd