In the years before Tyre Nichols’ death, the Memphis Police Department lowered hiring standards in order to increase recruiting amid staffing shortages and increasing violent crime.
Law enforcement veterans believe the presence of unqualified officers and the lack of experienced supervisors in specialized units could have contributed to the fatal beating of Nichols on January 7.
“They would allow just pretty much anybody to be a police officer because they just want these numbers,” Alvin Davis, a former lieutenant and recruiter with the department, told the Associated Press. “They’re not ready for it.”
Memphis Police Director Cerelyn Davis admitted that the situation was dire in a press conference following the release of the body camera footage of Nichols’ beating. Davis said the department was struggling to find qualified recruits and retain officers — especially supervisors.
According to department data, more than 1,350 officers resigned or retired over the past decade, more than 300 in the last two years alone. To solve the problem, the MPD turned to offering financial incentives and lowering hiring requirements — like many departments across the country.
According to Davis, the department offered hiring bonuses of $15,000 along with $10,000 relocation allowances, while removing the prerequisite to have either college credits, military service or previous police work.
Ronal Serpas, former police superintendent in New Orleans and former chief of the Washington State Patrol and the Nashville Police Department, said lowering hiring standards comes with significant risk.
“If you lower standards, you can predict that you’re going to have problems because we’re recruiting from the human race. There’s such a small number of people who want to do this and an infinitesimally smaller number of people we actually want doing this,” Serpas said.
Davis added that many recruits would ask about the minimum time they would have to serve on the department in order to keep the bonus money.
“I asked them what made you want to be the police and they’ll be honest — they’ll tell you it’s strictly about the money,” Davis said. “It’s not a career for them like it was to us. It’s just a job.”
One recruiter said the department has moved away from recruiting at college campuses and other law enforcement agencies. Instead, many applicants came from Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s restaurants. In one case, a stripper with an arrest record submitted an application. She didn’t get the job, but it showcased the type of person interested in the position.
“Anyone can get this job. You could have any type of experience and be the police,” said a former recruiter who asked to be anonymous. “There were red flags. But we’re so far down the pyramid nobody really hears the little person.”
Specialized units, like the SCORPION high-crime strike force that was involved in Nichols’ arrest (and is now disbanded), are more often being composed of inexperienced officers.
According to Davis, some of the officers who transferred back to patrol do not even know how to write a traffic ticket.
“They don’t know a felony from a misdemeanor,” Davis said. “They don’t even know right from wrong yet.”
MPD is also investigating why a supervisor failed to show up to the scene of Nichols’ arrest after a Taser or pepper spray was used, despite a department policy requiring it.
“If that had happened, somebody could have been there to intercept what happened,” Davis said after the incident.
The director said that the problem lies in the culture of the department, not the policy.
“Culture eats policy for lunch in police departments. If you don’t have the checks and balances you will have problems.”
To solve the imbalance of experienced officers to fresh recruits, Davis said she is looking for an outside vendor to fill 125 supervisor roles. Currently, the ratio of supervisors to officers in the department is 1:10. The change would bring that statistic to 1:8. The ideal ratio in a department, according to Davis, is 1:7.
“While those 125 don’t satisfy the ratio, this is a start. It’s not just the officer that has to be held accountable. It’s everybody in the chain up to the chief of police,” Davis said.
Michael Williams, former head of the Memphis Police Association union, was baffled that there was such a lack of supervision in the SCORPION unit.
“Why would you have an elite task force that you know is designed for aggressive policing and you don’t cover your bases? They may have to shoot someone. They may have to kick someone’s door down. They may have to physically restrain someone,” Williams said. “You should have experienced people around to restrain them and keep them from going down a dark path.”