William Jones recalls that as a teenager in Memphis, Tennessee, black police officers interrupted pick-up football games with friends when a white neighbor called to complain, often inflicting corporal punishment.
“And often it was the black officers who beat us worse than white officers,” Jones, 48, said.
So when the images of five black cops flashed on his television screen as the ones who allegedly punched black motorist Tire Nichols during a traffic stop on Jan. 7, Jones didn’t budge.
“I wasn’t surprised at all,” Jones, a high-security government employee, told NBC News. “Some of these officers hide behind their badges and forget who they came from. They really believe in blue lives matter. Some of these black officers are also good guys who came from rough neighborhoods. But I’ve seen some of them take that power – a lot of them – and abuse it. They didn’t come to my neighborhood and they don’t pull cats from trees. They came around when we were little boys, 13, 14 years old, and harassed us. And for no reason.”
Jones and other Black Memphis residents have shared with NBC News a series of reactions to seeing five black faces as the alleged perpetrators of Nichols’ fatal beating. Nichols, 29, died three days after the beating. Their responses are consistent with data on the extent of police violence against black people in the city. This is evident from a 2021 report on city data by TV station WREGBlack men were seven times more likely to experience police brutality than their white male peers.
“I can’t be surprised because it’s a mostly black part of town where black cops patrol,” said Barbara Johnson, 75, and grandmother. “The relationship with black people and the police is not very good. Black or white cops, it’s us against them. There is this distrust. Period.”
Brian Harris, 44, who is running for city council in the district where Nichols was killed, said the relationship between Memphis’ black community and law enforcement is deteriorating, with this case a touchstone for even more dissension.
“I’ve seen it change over the years,” Harris said. “And that shift has come in part because policies have been relaxed around the officers we have on board. A few years ago, she dropped the 60 hour credit requirement to just having a high school diploma, which changed the dynamic of those entering. That was due to recruitment purposes.
“Still, I’ve never seen anything like it. When it comes to Memphis and black officers and black-on-black confrontations…this is totally new,” Harris said. “But if you look at the history of Memphis and the race relations, we are oppressed, especially black men. And to know that black officers who took an oath to protect and serve turned against their own people… it is just unacceptable, shocking and disappointing.”
Nichols’ mother, RowVaughn Wells, said at a news conference Friday with attorney Ben Crump: “I want to say to the five police officers who killed my son, you also disgraced your own families when you did this.”
Memphians have a history of dealing with shootings of black men involving officers. Martavous Banks survived multiple shots by a cop during a traffic check in 2018. In 2015 Darius Stewart was shot and killed by a white officer during a traffic stop in the Hickory Hill section of Memphis where Nichols was beaten.
“But this feels a little different than anything else we’ve seen,” said Todd Harris, a 25-year-old Memphis resident who works in banking. He said a police officer friend informed him of Nichols’ death before it was made public.
“I was a little surprised because being beaten to death is so extreme,” Harris said. “That’s more intentional than shooting the person. But I was even more surprised that he was beaten to death by five black men.”
Circumstances, he said, have led conversations to be less about race and more about power.
But the issue is less complicated for Frank Johnson (no relation to Barbara Johnson), a Memphis native, school board member and activist, because he views the beating from a historical context.
“White supremacy has always had black faces to carry out their deeds,” Johnson said.
For Carla Griffin-Crouthers, Nichols’ death represents a broader security concern. “I used to go to the ATM and gas station at night without fear,” she said. “But now? No? Crime is on the rise and then you have the police who are supposed to protect you and who are doing the opposite.”
She said she didn’t have “the talk” about how to deal with the police safely with her 27-year-old son when he was a teenager, but “I have since he became a young man.” And sometimes even that is not enough.”
Some people, such as Griffin-Crouthers, praise the police for “acting quickly” and firing the officers and then charging them, even though it was almost three weeks after the beating.
So said Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis ABC news that the beating would only damage trust between police and black communities in Memphis and elsewhere. Davis too confirmed Friday to NBC News that the behavior of the officers at the traffic control was not in accordance with “police protocol”.
“I’ve been in business for 36 years, and a lot of the aggression and the approach [of the officers] was over the top,” she said.
However, Frank Johnson said, “The only reason we know Tire’s name now is because the activists in this town wouldn’t let go of his name. No they did not. They had to be forced to do this.”
Many black Memphis residents, Jones said, believe that if the officers had been white, no case would have been brought against them.
“No way,” he said. That’s the history of Memphis. And that comment goes back to a lack of confidence from the police, black or white.”
Todd Harris added: “Beating that man to death is a breach of trust – and yet another cause for fear between the minority population and the police.”