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Body Cam Footage and Cellphone Videos Will Make the Quick Dismissals of Bad Police More Common

by Jo Ellen Nott

When five police officers were fired in Tennessee less than two weeks after brutally beating Tyré Nichols on January 7, 2023, and causing his death, the nation reacted with relief at the speed with which the Memphis Police Department took action. Experts in policing matters say the swiftness of those firing is unusual, but technology is in place for it to become more common.    

The five officers, all Black men, as was their victim, were fired for excessive use of force, failure to intervene, and failure to render aid.  The officers stopped Nichols for reckless driving, causing a confrontation of illogical commands and threats to use their Tasers from which Nichols ran. He was confronted again (translate brutally beaten) and arrested. When Nicholas complained of shortness of breath, he was hospitalized. He died three days later.  

U.S. News and World Report spoke to David Thomas, professor of forensic studies at Florida Gulf Coast University, about the firing of the five officers, saying “it never happens this quickly. Investigations can sometimes go on for up to a year.”  In the Tyré Nichols case, the firings preceded investigations now under way by the Department of Justice for civil rights violation and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation for use of force. 

A 20-year veteran of two police forces, Thomas explained factors that allow a police department to act against rogue officers.  The deployment of police body cameras and citizens shooting video from their cellphones are game changers. As Thomas explains, “In the old days you’d have the officer’s word. If the victim was still alive, you’d have their testimony. If someone had died, you’d have the medical examiner’s report. All of that would play a role.” 

With the advent of body cameras and cellphone videos, the lengthy process of taking statements and waiting for medical reports has been cut short. The evidence is readily available and indisputable.  In Nichols’ case, his family pushed for the release of the bodycam footage and asked for officers to be charged.  But, as Thomas points out, bodycams must be on and recording through the whole incident to tell the full story.  Only then does the use of bodycam footage allow departments to let go of bad actors more quickly.

U.S. News and World Report also consulted Loyola Chicago law school professor Stephen Rushin who calls the firing of an officer before criminal charges are filed unusual. In many cities, job contracts give officers a path to appeal disciplinary action up to and including termination of their employment.  Rushin also pointed out that it is common for an officer to be rehired after a lengthy appeal process.  

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