The fatal beating of Tyre Nichols by a group of Memphis police officers on January 7, 2023 shows the same patterns as other police atrocities.
Three police tactics and procedures seen in Memphis greatly increase the risk of cops becoming so aggressive and emotional that they lose self-control. The result is prolonged violence continuing long after the suspect is incapacitated; officers making frenzied, loud, even joyous noises egging each other on; mocking the victim, joking, and bragging about the incident for almost an hour afterwards. These are all signs of collective adrenaline surge-- like a group of excited sports fans-- at an adrenaline level where perception, cognition, and moral restraints are impaired.
The three factors are:
(1) Police anonymity: unmarked cars, no uniforms, wearing hoods, an ominous and threatening self-presentation.
(2) Large numbers of officers on the scene-- the crowd-multiplier of violence.
(3) Rumor transmission among police and support personnel, amplifying false beliefs about the dangerousness of the suspect.
(1) A pair of cops driving an unmarked car stop Tyre Nichols in the dark for an unspecified traffic violation-- "driving recklessly" in the initial report. It is a high-crime area in a city with a very high murder rate. The cops are part of a special unit, ominously titled SCORPION, proclaiming their intention to fight fire with fire. The officer who approaches Nichols' car (Haley) is wearing all-black clothes, a black hoody, and displays no police insignia. *
* In a similar incident on January 4 (3 nights earlier in the same neighbourhood) 22-year-old Monterrious Harris while visiting a cousin "was suddenly swarmed by a large group of assailants wearing black ski-masks, dressed in black clothing, brandishing guns and other weapons, hurling expletives and making threats to end his life if he did not exit his car." According to his lawsuit, "Harris thought the men were trying to rob him, and tried to back up his car... He then reluctantly exited with his hands raised and was grabbed, punched, kicked and assaulted for up to two minutes." He was arrested for being a convicted felon in possession of a handgun, criminal trespass, and evading arrest; the lawsuit accuses officers of fabricating the charges. [Associated Press, Feb. 9, 2023] Details are unverified at this time, but the incident suggests what an anonymous police stop by SCORPION looked like from the point of view of the victim.
Officer Haley did not have his body camera on, but he was on a phone call at the time of the stop and was overheard cursing at Nichols, without telling him why he was being stopped or that he was under arrest. Nichols initially would not leave his car. He had no police record, and was a Fedex worker on his way home from his shift. Other officers (already on the scene, or soon arriving) pulled him from the car and beat him. After he was subdued, an officer used a Taser on him. Nichols broke free (more on this below), setting off a chase on foot. He lived just a few blocks away, and according to his cries, was trying to reach his mother to protect him from the assault.
(2) There were at least two police cars at the initial traffic stop. This would be in keeping with SCORPION organization in 4-to-10 person teams. Officer Hemphill (the only white officer among those identified) drove with Haley, used a Taser on Nichols, and on a body camera recording is heard saying "I hope they stomp his ass." At the second scene, after Nichols is recaptured and severely beaten, there are at least 5 officers taking part, including Haley and several others from the traffic stop; plus further officers called to the scene. Video shows "a number of other officers standing around after the beating." Altogether thirteen persons have been charged: including 3 emergency medical technicians who connived with the assaulting officers, acting more like a cheering section; 10 Memphis police or sheriff deputies.
Officers acted throughout as teams, pulling and restraining Nichols; egging each other on to further attacks; holding and moving him bodily into position for further beatings. Usually only two or three at a time; but the crowd-multiplier increases with the number of bystanders, providing vocal encouragement and heightening the emotional mood.
Look at the time-line: Nichols was stopped around 8 p.m. Haley pulls him from the car. Nichols says "I didn't do anything" as a group of officers begin to wrestle him to the ground. One officer yells "Tase him! Tase him!" Nichols calmly says, "OK, I'm on the ground." Video shows he is passive. "You guys are doing a lot right now. I'm just trying to go home." Shortly after, he yells "Stop, I'm not doing anything." An officer fires a Taser while the others back off temporarily; Nichols breaks free and runs off. This enrages the cops, who chase after him, calling for more backup. They catch up with him a few blocks away (within a couple of minutes). A pole camera video shows "two officers standing over Nichols and striking him as he lies on the street. As he tries to get to his feet, a third officer kicks him in the head. Nichols resists the officers, and a fourth strikes him as he is brought to his feet. One of the officers then repeatedly swings and strikes Nichols in the head with his fist while other officers hold Nichols' arms back before he falls to the ground. Officers restrain his hands behind his back, then drag and prop him up beside a police vehicle." [WSJ, AP, NY Times, Jan. 28]
"Three officers surround Nichols as he lies in the street cornered between police cars with a fourth officer nearby. Two officers hold Nichols to the ground as he moves about, and then a third appears to kick him in the head. Nichols slumps more fully onto the pavement with all three officers surrounding him. The same officer kicks him again. The fourth officer then walks over, unfurls a baton and holds it up to shoulder level as two officers hold Nichols upright. "I'm going to baton the shit out of you," one officer can be heard saying. His body camera shows him raise his baton while at least one other officer holds Nichols. The officer strikes Nichols on the back with the baton three times. The other officers than hoist Nichols to his feet, with him flopping like a doll, barely able to stay upright. An officer than punches him in the face, as the officer with the baton continues to menace him. Nichols stumbles and turns, still held up by two officers. The officer who punched him then walks around to Nichols' front and punches him three more times. Then Nichols collapses.
"Two officers can then be seen atop Nichols on the ground, with a third nearby for about 40 seonds. Three more officers then run up and one can be seen kicking Nichols on the ground." [Bystanders joining in at the end.]
"Recording showed police beating Nichols for three minutes while screaming profanities throughout the attack."
In the aftermath, the cops are still pumped."Videos showed officers leaving him on the pavement propped against a squad car as they fist-bumped and celebrated." A police call describing a "person who had been pepper-sprayed" led to emergency medical responders arriving about 10 minutes later (8.41pm); the EMTs did little but join in the celebration, summoning an ambulance which arrived at 8.55 and left for the hospital at 9.08. Apparently they bought the cops' version of what happened. During this period "Haley took photos with his cell phone as [Nichols] lay propped against the police car, and sent them to other officers and a female acquaintance... Officers shouted profanities at Nichols, laughing after the beating, and bragging about their involvement." This was the same atmosphere as in the beating of Rodney King by the LAPD in 1991: 21 officers ringed the captured car, cheering while four of them did the beating. Driving back to the station, police radio traffic boasted "we really hit some home runs out there tonight, didn't we?" (Rodney King worked at Dodger stadium.) [Collins 2008: 88-90]
(3) Rumor transmission in the police network:
In initial police reports "at least two officers said that Nichols tried to grab an officer's gun-- a claim for which there is no evidence, according to the documents, while leaving out details of the beating." (NYT Feb. 8, 2023)
This is a standard cliché. In the telling, it is typical to exaggerate the amount of threat posed by the suspect, if there is any hitch at all at the outset. In the same way, large numbers of officers called to a potential suicide-- a man threatening to jump from a freeway overpass; or holed up inside a house-- gets amplified as the report goes around by radio traffic, dispatchers, and word of mouth to those called to the scene. A possible suicide attempt drops out the "maybe" and adds the cliché that the suspect may be dangerous; morphing into armed and dangerous; morphing into armed and swearing not to go out without taking someone else with him. In 1998, a drunken white man sitting on a LA freeway ramp for an hour attracted dozens of police from various juridictions (highway patrol, town police forces, sheriff deputies); during that time police radio dispatchers spread erroneous reports that he was firing at police helicopters and officers on the ground. They shot him 106 times, with many more bullets hitting houses blocks away. [Collins 2008: 113] This is another causal path by which calling large numbers of police (and for that matter, other support personnel) to the scene promotes police violence--- larger numbers are more links for rumors to be formed.
Psychological experiments on messages repeated from one person to another find the message loses all detail as it goes down the chain, turning into the most standard cliches. In a famous case in 2009 a Harvard professor, a black man, was dropped off at his home by a taxi; a "not sure if something is wrong" call-in by a passerby was transformed by the police depatcher into two black men trying to break into a house; Prof. Gates became understandably upset and was arrested-- lucky for him he didn't get shot. [Collins 2022: 282-4] Whether the story that "he tried to grab an officer's gun" started from the beginning of the Nichols arrest is unclear-- the police were already primed to find a murderous suspect, get angry at any lack of cooperation, and become livid if someone tries to run away--- but the fact that the grab-the-gun story was stated by two or more officers suggest that it emerged as the overarching story frame by the time the police and the EMTs were jovially celebrating.
The patterns found in the Memphis killing have been videly documented in violence research.
 The hangman phenomenon: Wearing hoods, masks, and other kinds of scarey costumes are typical among mass rampage killers. The gunman who killed 12 and wounded 70 at a Batman movie in Aurora, Colorado in 2012 wore a Joker costume and opened fire under the cover of darkness [2020: 257-8]. Kids who shoot up schools often collect military equipment to wear, including shooting-range ear-plugs which create a feeling of isolation from the victims. [2020: 261-69] The underlying social psychology is that people find face-to-face contact with a victim to be disconcerting; above all, it is eye contact that attackers avoid, since it humanizes the encounter. Videos and photos of beatings during riots (whether by crowd-control forces, protesters or hostile ethnic groups) show that victims are almost always turned away from their attackers; falling down in a frenzied demonstration acts like a trigger for attackers. [Collins 2008: 128-32; Nassauer 2019] Conversely, calmly facing one's potential attacker is the best way to fend off violence. Professional killers, such as the Mafia, deliberately attempt to take their victim from behind or when they are not looking. [2008: 239]
This is the hangman phenomenon: executions traditionally were carried out wearing a hood. Studies of military violence show that wearing a hood is associated with higher levels of violence and deliberate cruelty. [2008: 78-80] It is a way to avoid face-to-face intersubjectivity; when one's eyes are reduced to a little slit in face-covering darkness, the mutual exchange of emotions is cut off. The same psychological mechanism is found in the superior lethality of snipers operating through long-distance scopes-- the psychological security that the human victim is not looking back at you. [2008: 233-35] Wearing ski masks, along with all-dark clothes, are used world-wide by "elite" police and military forces, essentially as a morale-booster, and deliberate attempt to terrify their victims. William James explained the psychology: just as running away triggers the emotion of being afraid, dressing oneself up in the paraphernalia of a frightening tough guy makes one feel arrogant and aggressive.
No doubt American cops who dress themselves in dark, frightening outfits think they are being cool (photos of FBI raids often show the same tough-cop fashion code). Cops don't want to be square; and in the antinomian youth culture of the past half-century, criminal styles, playful or otherwise, are the definition of cool. But today's police should be aware they are emulating the demeanor and the ethos of authoritarian "secret police"--- secret in the sense of plain-clothed.
The Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei-- literally "secret state police") liked to break in and make their arrests at night. But these are the bad guys! Not like us? The Nazis regarded themselves, from their point-of-view, as the good guys, taking necessary measures against horrible enemies, mythological as they might be. Filling in the same blanks with different details, this is the same psychological pattern as the Memphis SCORPION and similar plain-clothes special operations (i.e. violence-seeking) police.
Besides the psychological effects of hoods and scary costumes on the perpetrators, there is a psychological effect on their targets. Individuals like Tyre Nichols, stopped by thug-like men, understandably try to escape. Even after it becomes clearer that they are police, acting the thug role makes them morph into the same thing. The Memphis killing resembles one of the first such police killings to be widely publicized: Amadou Diallo, in NYC in 1999, had the misfortune to be coming out of his apartment building when four police in a special anti-rape unit drove by; stepping back into the shallow entrance corridor set off a forward rush by the cops who fired 41 shots, at a distance of 3 meters, while Diallo reached into his pocket to show his ID. [2008: 112] The overkill--- firing went on after he was down-- is an indicator of adrenaline rush, pumping up attackers for many minutes thereafter.
Bottom line: Police wearing masks, hoods, and gang-like clothing should be banned by law. Respect for police does not come from looking like violent thugs. Whatever the tactical advantages police officials may think there are in these practices, more crime is prevented when the community trusts the police and cooperates with them than when they are afraid of them. *
* A central theme of Elijah Anderson, Code of the Street, 1999 and Black in White Space, 2022 is that black ghetto communities have high crime rates because residents do not trust the police to help them, so being tough-- or at least putting on the appearance of it-- becomes the local culture of self-defence. Combined with cops' paranoia, it makes a vicious circle.
 The crowd multiplier. The more police at the scene of an arrest of single suspect, the more likely prolonged and emotionally out-of-control violence. [2022: 278-79] In all kinds of violence, a group against an individual produces the most vicious, prolonged, and out-of-control attacks. Photographic evidence from riots, brawls, and and ethnic violence overwhelmingly shows the pattern of 4-to-6 persons beating an isolated individual, typically lying on the ground and unable to resist. [Collins 2008: 128-32; Nassauer 2019] The pattern is found all over the world, and in any combination of social identities; police and soldiers act the same way that ethnic rampagers do. A combination of psychological mechanisms are at work: attacking from all sides ensure the victim cannot maintain eye-contact; successful violence almost always comes from attacking a weak victim. Emotional contagion accelerates in groups; this is especially strong when there are supportive audiences [2008: 203-4, 413-30; 2022: 277] and above all when the attackers are men and there are women in the audience. [2008: 479]
Adrenaline rush is typical in most violent confrontations; when it intensifies to higher levels (indexed by heart-rates over 170 BPM) perception blurs, and trained attackers operate on auto-pilot; ignoring the victim's cries or interpreting them scornfully. The attacking group becomes an emotional cocoon, and a cognitive cocoon as well-- a state of polarization where all good and humanity is on our side, and the victim is dehumanized. This is a mini-version of what happens in genocidal massacres. [McDoom 2021] Hence the bizarre spectacle (to outsiders) of laughter and ebullience that continues while the adrenaline rush takes time to subside. [2008: 282]
Bottom line: Police training needs to be thoroughly revamped. As it stands, training emphasizes that a police officer is constantly at risk; weapons drills train for "muscle memory" to maximize quick response. It would take quite a revolution to train officers to prioritize monitoring their own emotions and becoming away of how they amplify each other into a collective mood. Officers need to be throughly trained in the psychology of violence, above all their own. *
* The best report thus far on what it is like to attempt to train officers on social factors in their work is in Jennifer C. Hunt, 2010. -- a psychoanalyst working for the NYPD Training Division. She did not feel successful in changing the scary-macho culture.
 Transmitting stereotyped rumors. I have already noted that psychological experiments where a message is repeated through a chain find that within very few links, the message becomes shorter and simpler, losing all nuance and context. The stereotype is in the ears-and-brain of the hearer, even when the message is repeated just a few seconds later; if more minutes intervene, the message becomes the staccoto words of a cliché. The rumor-stereotyping pattern increases the more links there are in the chain; this includes both police radio dispatchers, and the police themselves, in car-to-car radio links, or over their computers; and it can be enhanced on-the-spot as more police backup (as well as medical support) arrives.
Bottom line: police dispatchers need to be better trained, specifically in awareness of the rumor-stereotyping process. Dispatchers are a low-paid, low-skilled job, which should be upgraded--- again, with social psychology in the foreground.
Most importantly, police training needs to be thoroughly investigated and reorganized. With each highly publicized incident of police violence, there are political calls for increased punishment, including removing qualified immunity. Whether or not this politically difficult reform is carried out, it should be noted that highly publicized trials and convictions of officers since the George Floyd killing have not stopped similar police atrocities from happening. Police throughout the country are acutely aware of the publicity; yet why do they keep on doing it? The answer is that the behavior of police in action is subject to emotional forces, like the ones I have outlined. It is in the interest of police, and everybody else, that these social-psychological dangers should be very high in their awareness.
News reports by Associated Press, New York Times, and Wall St. Journal, Jan. 28 - Feb. 9, 2023.
Elijah Anderson, 1999. Code of the Street.
2022. Black in White Space.
Randall Collins, 2008. Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory.
2022. Explosive Conflict: Time-Dynamics of Violence.
Jennifer C. Hunt, 2010. Seven Shots.
Omar McDoom, 2021. The Path to Genocide in Rwanda.
Anne Nassauer, 2019. Situational Breakdowns: Understanding Protest Violence.