Police reform redux: another death, no progress from Congress

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
Video footage recorded on police-issued body-worn cameras and a pole camera taken on the evening of January 7 in Memphis shows officers beating Tyre Nichols. He died three days later. Screenshot courtesy of City of Memphis
Video footage recorded on police-issued body-worn cameras and a pole camera taken on the evening of January 7 in Memphis shows officers beating Tyre Nichols. He died three days later. Screenshot courtesy of City of Memphis | License Photo

Feb. 8 (UPI) -- The inexplicable murder of Tyre Nichols by five Memphis police officers brought home again the question of why instances of police brutality continue to occur in America.

In April 2021, I wrote about "Lessons for the Police from the Military: Focus on Training and Rules of Engagement." Despite all the pleas for reform and the need for corrective action since then, little seems to have been accomplished and Congress has failed to pass any policing legislation.


After the killing of George Floyd in 2020, 30 states and the District of Columbia produced police reforms. The United States employs nearly 18,000 police forces nationwide and about 700,000 full-time officers. Making improvements throughout this collective body divided across states and cities, often with competing jurisdictions, is a massive undertaking, especially if these incidents reflect systemic and institutional flaws and failures in many of these departments and, indeed, of society as a whole.


If it is society that is largely at fault, then reforming individual police departments, however necessary, will be insufficient to correct misconduct and excessive use of force.

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Crime now ranks much higher in public awareness of national problems, although statistically, 2022 set no new records and, in some areas, crime was reduced. The ubiquity of guns -- and what appears to be a more violent society, if the absence of civility and the more commonplace presence of anger, even in basic interactions among people, are indicators -- police understandably are more sensitive to the prospect of greater personal danger and vulnerability. And, likewise, the public is more apprehensive around police, particularly people of color.

This raises the race issue. Studies show that proportionally White officers are more prone to using force than those of color. Is this a problem of statistics or fact? If the latter, can training and education, as well as diversification of police forces, be corrective measures?

While training and education are part of any solution, is that enough? American police officers undergo on average between 20 and 27 months of training followed by a probation period of several months. By comparison, German police training takes 2 1/2 to four years; in the United Kingdom two to three years. Clearly, more research is needed here.


After the Korean War, when a surprisingly large number of American POWs succumbed to what was called "brain washing," the U.S. military created a Code of Conduct that defined acceptable levels of behavior in war and peace.

During the Vietnam War, when U.S. pilots were being outfought by the North Vietnamese, the U.S. Navy invented "Top Gun" Fighter Weapons School, made famous in two movies of that name. The kill ratio reversed to 15-to-1 in favor of U.S. pilots.

Would a national code of conduct, properly constructed for police, make a difference? Similarly, would a national police academy akin to "Top Gun" provide an additional level of education and training for local and state police forces? It would seem that both military inventions would be helpful in raising the level of police professionalism, particularly in crisis or life-threatening situations, such as air-to-air combat.

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Another factor may be relevant.

Over 75% of Americans believe the nation is headed in the wrong direction. And an equal number are dissatisfied with their lives. If the national mood is sour, that will affect society at large.

With the precipitous increase in drug overdose deaths and the lethality of fentanyl, that, too, puts additional burdens on policing.


The military mission over many decades expanded from fighting the armies of enemies. Today, some enemies lack armies. Others that do have armies also rely on terrorism and non-kinetic weapons, such as cyber. Similarly, police forces have broader missions and responsibilities, as well as liabilities.

America confronts a massive list of challenges and problems, from Chinese balloons and the war in Ukraine to a public deeply divided on most issues -- huge debts, drugs, immigration, equality and fairness. Against that background, policing must take a higher priority.

Since the U.S. government seems unable to address police policy in a satisfactory method, perhaps the Associations of Governors and Mayors would be appropriate forums. And using the examples of a code of conduct and a police "Top Gun" could be excellent starting points for this effort.

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at Washington's Atlantic Council, the prime author of "shock and awe" and author of "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large." Follow him @harlankullman.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.


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