By Robert Alan Glover
“I’m just trying to get home … I’m showing you my hands … I am on the ground.” These phrases Tyre Nichols of Memphis spoke Jan. 7, 2023, were among the last words the young Black man spoke before dying a few days later after a brutal beating at the hands of police.
Five Black Memphis police officers who allegedly beat him to death now wait for the measure of justice they delayed and denied to Nichols, whose death threw into relief — once again — a brutal culture that exists within American policing.
The U.S. Justice Department revealed on March 8 it is investigating the Memphis Police Department and specialized police units across the U.S., following Nichols’ brutal death. Attorney General Merrick Garland also announced the results of the Justice department’s investigation into the policies and practices of the Louisville Metro Police Department in Kentucky’s largest city. LMPD officers killed Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black medical worker, in a “no-knock” raid March 13, 2020, using a warrant based on deliberately falsified information.
Garland’s investigation revealed the 90% majority white LMPD had targeted Louisville’s Black residents for decades. The department “had engaged in a pattern of anti-Black discrimination” and numerous civil rights violations. Use of excessive force, searches carried out through unlawful stops, unlawful arrests of persons of color, and discrimination against persons with behavioral health disabilities were also abuses detailed in the report.
“Officers threw drinks at pedestrians from police vehicles, called Black citizens ‘monkeys,’ ‘animal,’ ‘boy,’ and insulted disabled people,” said Garland.
Louisville’s police and local government have agreed to enter into a consent decree with the federal government to implement reforms.
Both Nichols and Taylor’s deaths, however, underscore the need for the church’s leaders to raise their voices in solidarity with communities seeking to eliminate a scourge of violence and inhumanity from institutions charged with serving and protecting them.
Bishop John E. Stowe, a Conventual Franciscan and bishop of the Diocese of Lexington, was a highly visible and outspoken presence in Lexington, Kentucky’s second largest city, during the 2020 protests over the Minneapolis police-related killing of George Floyd.
“Catholic teaching emphasizes the dignity of the human person made in the image and likeness of God. Brutality on the part of law enforcement is a violation of both the position of trust and authority of a public figure and a violation of the basic human dignity,” he said. “I attended a community-wide healing service in the wake of the George Floyd killing, because of the tremendous awakening to the scope of police killing unarmed Black men, resulting from Floyd’s brutal death.”
“I believe it was important for Catholics to hear that statement and why it was important for me to say so,” Bishop Stowe said.
Bishop Stowe said he has “not spearheaded any initiatives around dealing with police brutality” in the diocese or in previous assignments.
However, the bishop has met with Lexington’s Black clergy, and he “urged support for the reforms they called for regarding the Lexington Police Department.”
Prior to that, he said, his experience involved a “long-term struggle with a previous El Paso, Texas, sheriff who was unfairly targeting the immigrant population.”
“In any place where police kill or use exaggerated force against African-Americans or other people of color, there needs to be a full and impartial investigation,” the bishop said. “Training should be enhanced for officers to learn how to de-escalate situations rather than escalate the tension, and DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) training needs to be part of law enforcement training.”
Andrew Musgrave, director of Social Action for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, said he came to the position from Milwaukee, a Wisconsin city with its own troubled history of racial and social injustice.
“I have been here about four years, and my position working in Milwaukee was the same type, but with a different scope and type of outreach, covering four parishes,” Musgrave said.
Musgrave noted present-day conditions in Cincinnati, which endured four days of rioting in 2001, sparked by the police killing of yet another unarmed Black man, 19-year-old Timothy Thomas.
“The consent decree (a contract requiring federally mandated police reforms) has had its effect over the years, on C&P (community and police) relations, and has also refreshed dialogue about the issue,” Musgrave said. He noted Sheriff Charmaine McGuffey of Hamilton County, elected in 2020 as the first woman in the post, has “improved diversity within her office, while also addressing conditions at the Justice Center.”
Musgrave noted that “while some citizens have been disappointed with several recent episodes involving law enforcement,” Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr “has been very supportive of a dialogue on race.”
“The title of our one-time (to date) initiative, ‘Open Wide Our Hearts,’ was derived from a pastoral letter written by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2018. The letter was a call to love that also addressed racism and the need to end it,” Musgrave said.
Following Nichols’ death, Bishop David P. Talley of Memphis also called on “our faithful and our community to pray for the eternal rest of Tyre Nichols, and to continue to pray that God brings comfort to his family.”