The death of Tyre Nichols following a vicious beating by Memphis police officers indicates the perils of lower standards for police recruits nationally amid recruitment challenges, a law enforcement advocacy group says.
The Memphis Police Department hired two of the five officers who were fired and charged in Nichols’ death in 2020, after the department reduced training and education standards.
One of the two officers easily would have cleared the previous education requirements. However, the other was hired after he was accused in a lawsuit of beating an inmate while working as a prison guard.
“In normal times, he probably wouldn’t have been offered the job as a police officer,” said Jason Johson, president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund and a former deputy commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department.
This is a national problem for police departments, Johnson said, because anti-police political rhetoric both encourages early retirements and makes recruitment more difficult.
“This is one of the first indications that reducing standards for being a law enforcement officer can be dangerous,” Johnson told The Daily Signal. “Even without lowering the standards, competition for these jobs is lower, so you get a lower level of professionalism.”
In 2018, the Memphis Police Department reduced recruitment standards, according to Action News 5, an NBC affiliate in Memphis. Eligibility qualifications previously required either two years of military experience with an honorable discharge, an associate’s degree, or 54 college credit hours.
The Memphis police force lowered those standards to five years of verified work experience and a high school diploma. But the requirements still call for obtaining an associate’s degree within four years of employment.
The New York Post first reported Saturday that two of the Memphis officers were hired after reduced standards, citing NBC News’ reporting on the backgrounds of the accused officers.
The Memphis Police Department fired the officers–Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr., and Justin Smith–in the wake of Nichols’ death in a hospital within three days of the beating that followed a traffic stop Jan. 7.
All five former officers are black, as was Nichols. Officers’ treatment of the 29-year-old was recorded by their body cameras. Pending trials, all five are presumed not guilty.
Prosecutors brought charges against the five former officers that include second-degree murder, two counts of aggravated kidnapping, and one count of aggravated assault.
The Memphis Police Department hired Haley in August 2020 after he had been a corrections officer for the Shelby County Corrections Department. Haley and two other corrections officers were named in a 2016 lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for Western Tennessee that accused them of participating in a beating of inmate Cordarlrius Sledge in 2015.
Judge Thomas Anderson dismissed the case without addressing the allegations in 2018 after finding that he did not properly serve one of the defendants with a summons, NBC reported.
Other officers involved in the altercation with Nichols apparently did not have a questionable background.
Bean also joined the Memphis Police Department in August 2020, two years after the recruitment standards were lowered. However, Bean graduated from the University of Mississippi in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.
Martin and Smith both were hired in March 2018, just months before the standards were lowered in June. Martin played football at Bethel University. NBC News’ roundup had little information on Smith.
Mills, hired in March 2017, played football for West Virginia State University.
Reached by phone Monday about recruitment standards, a person in the Memphis Police Department’s Legal Affairs Office told The Daily Signal that the five fired officers “operated outside what they are trained to do.” He referred The Daily Signal to public statements by Mayor Jim Strickland and Police Chief Cerelyn Davis.
“It is clear that these officers violated the department’s policies and training,” Strickland said last week. “But we are doing everything we can to prevent this from happening again. We are initiating an outside, independent review of the training, policies, and operations of our specialized units.”
Recruitment for police officers became more difficult in 2020 after the rise of the “defund the police” movement and its demonization of law enforcement, the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund’s Johnson said.
“The attacks on law enforcement drives some of the best officers out of the force,” Johnson said. “The people pushing these policies think they are improving law enforcement, but they are doing the opposite.”
Some progressive advocates have called for removing barriers to working in law enforcement, allowing convicted felons or those who previously abused drugs to be police officers.
“Law enforcement is not a job you want to open for questionable conduct,” Johnson said. “Some activists call for removing barriers to entry. But this job is about handling major responsibilities.”
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