Former CT resident charged in Tyre Nichols death at center of police race debate

Photo of Jesse Leavenworth
Protesters march in Memphis over the death of Tyre Nichols, who died after being beaten by Memphis police. Black officers make up about 58 percent of the Memphis force, but activists say the victim's race is more central to continuing police brutality. 

Protesters march in Memphis over the death of Tyre Nichols, who died after being beaten by Memphis police. Black officers make up about 58 percent of the Memphis force, but activists say the victim's race is more central to continuing police brutality. 

Gerald Herberft

While he was growing up in Connecticut, friends say Desmond Mills Jr. wanted to become a police officer to serve the Black community and create positive change for them.

The Bloomfield High School graduate is now one of the former Black Memphis police officers charged in the beating death of Tyre Nichols and at the center of a debate about whether racism is baked into law enforcement regardless of the color of the cops involved.

Current and former Black officers in Connecticut and beyond have condemned the brutality seen on videos of the confrontation, but they offer different perspectives on the cause.

"Instead of just saying we have a minority of officers who are bad officers, to villainize every single police officer is absolutely atrocious," said  Bernie Hallums, who is a Black former police officer in Manchester. "Good cops do not stand with bad cops."

Hallums, who teaches Partnerships with Our Communities, a community policing class to certified Connecticut officers, said he has been listening to Black lawyers, ministers and others discuss the Nichols case and "it's the same old noise, villifying every police officer and dividing people from the police." 

Activists and attorneys said in a recent USA Today report that a biased culture of policing puts Black people at risk regardless of the officer's race. However, Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn "C.J." Davis, who is a Black woman and presides over a force comprised of 58 percent Black officers, has said "race is off the table" in the case, which she said is about human dignity and integrity.

Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, an online racial justice organization, said the Nichols case points to systemic racial biases inherent in policing that need to be rooted out, regardless of the color of the officers. 

“What this illustrates is that we do have a deep problem that is beyond black and white and it’s about blue,” Robinson was quoted as saying in the USA Today story. “It’s about the nature and the infrastructures of policing in this country that every single day send a message."

Black police officers make up 12.5 to 13 percent of all law enforcement officers in the U.S. Many departments in Connecticut and around the nation have focused on hiring more Black cops, citing their effectiveness in interacting with minority communities.

"We know based on our own observations, as well as the various empirical studies, that we serve a very pivotal position in the creation of good, solid police-community relations,” Charles P. Wilson, former chairman of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers, was quoted as saying in The Atlantic in a 2021 article about the loss of Black officers due to retirements.

“We police differently than our (white) counterparts do," Wilson said. "There’s no question about that. We come on the job for a different reason than they do. When we’re on the street, we treat people differently.”

Others, however, have said Black officers can be just as cruel to Black victims as white officers.

“Here’s a dirty little secret: Studies indicate that Black officers are just as brutal and at times even more brutal against Black bodies as their white counterparts," Duane Loynes Sr., a professor at Rhodes College in Memphis whose research focuses on the Black community and police, told the Los Angeles Times recently

“If a system is problematic,” Loynes was quoted as saying, “it doesn’t matter who you plug into it. You will get the same result.”

In an interview last week, Wilson stood by his comments to The Atlantic. The former Ohio municipal and county police officer, who also was a lieutenant in the Rhode Island College police force, said Black cops "come from those communities. We're raising our families there, so we have a closer connection to those communities" than officers who come from mostly white suburbs.

"They don't have a good feel for the problems and issues that folks in the Black and brown communities have to face each and every day," said Wilson, who remains an executive in the national Black officers association.

In the Memphis case, Wilson said the officers "forgot where the hell they came from."

"They forgot who they are and why they're supposed to be doing what they do," he said.

In an opinion piece for the Providence news site, GoLocalProv, Wilson wrote that he has been shamed "because of the fact that each of the ones who killed Tyre looked exactly like me."

"They allegedly swore the same oaths that I did to protect and serve the community. They were supposed to uphold the 200-plus years legacy of every Black law enforcement officer that has ever served," he wrote. "They brought unearned destruction upon the more than 50 years of work that Black law enforcement officers have exerted to bring about change in our communities. They debased and dishonored the badge that they carried."

One solution to stem all police brutality, Wilson wrote, is to ditch qualified immunity, which opponents say protects police personally from warranted complaints. Connecticut's police accountability law limits government immunity for police when an officer's conduct is found to be “malicious, wanton or willful."

The nationwide focus of protests, and in some places, riots, has been the killings of unarmed Black men, including Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, Freddie Gray in Baltimore in 2015, George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020 and now Nichols. According to a Washington Post database, police kill Black people at twice the rate of white people.

Since 2015, police in the U.S. have killed 8,166 individuals, including 1,905 Black people. Of those Black victims at last count, 148 were unarmed, which jibes roughly with a 2021 NPR report that said police had shot at least 135 unarmed Black men and women since 2015.

"This intolerable failure in duty and service is the No. 1 challenge for police leaders across the nation, and police executives must discover efficient and effective ways to dismantle any perceived culture within policing that would condone or allow for such abuse of those that we are entrusted to protect and serve," New London Police Chief Brian Wright, the city's first Black chief, wrote in a statement in response to Nichols' death.