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Ex-Memphis police colonel is in shock over the video of police beating Tyre Nichols


The five former Memphis cops involved in the deadly beating of Tyre Nichols are awaiting arraignment on murder charges. They were members of the city's so-called Scorpion unit designed to target crime hot spots. That was disbanded over the weekend. Lawyers for the Nichols family called it a decent and just decision, and they're also calling for more police reforms. Joining us now is pastor and retired Memphis Police Colonel James Kirkwood. He heads the Memphis Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board, known as CLERB. Pastor, you spent more than three decades on the Memphis Police Department. First off, what was your reaction when you saw those videos being released?

JAMES KIRKWOOD: My reaction was - one, I was sad. I was embarrassed and just total shock that this behavior, this act of violence on a young man, Mr. Nichols, who didn't even show aggression, took place.

MARTÍNEZ: What was the most embarrassing part about it for you as a professional, as a Memphis police officer, former Memphis police officer?

KIRKWOOD: That we had a group of police officers acting like a wolf pack on a man who had done nothing. He hadn't shown any violence. He hadn't shown - there was no call that said that he had committed any heinous acts. I was blown away that even - this man never even cussed during the altercation. You know, that was a sad moment for me. And in talking to a lot of other colleagues who have retired and went on, it's the same for them.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, I mean, this could have been someone's son, right? Your son, your colleagues' son, I mean, some - that's how deep this thing goes.

KIRKWOOD: Yeah. Yes.

MARTÍNEZ: As a retired veteran officer, what changes in training and policy do you think are needed?

KIRKWOOD: I think all too often we basically - we train so hard. We spend many hours at the gun range. We spend many hours on aggressive maneuvers to fight and to - you know, how to apprehend officers - how to apprehend suspects, when the truth of the matter, most of - most police officers never, ever pull their weapon to shoot anybody. And I mean the overwhelming majority of police officers never, ever fire their weapons at anybody, never, ever pull their weapons to shoot anybody. Most police officers, the overwhelming majority, never get into a real fight, you know, where, I mean, a real fight takes place in their career. But what we do deal with often and more and more each day is individuals in crisis, people needing assistance, people needing - entering into disturbances where de-escalation needs to take place. We enter into situations where we truly need to understand the emotional learning, the social aspects of what's going on in this situation.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, so police officers, you're saying, are training for something that rarely, if ever, may happen.

KIRKWOOD: Yeah, it rarely, if ever, happens. But the very thing that you deal with on a daily basis, interacting with community, you get little training on. And that's what officers need. They need a whole lot of training on de-escalation, a lot of training on the social, emotional learning and cultural awareness.

MARTÍNEZ: But, Pastor, isn't that something we've known already, though? I mean, it seems like we've known that for a long time.

KIRKWOOD: You are absolutely right, all right? We have known it, down through the years. And you always hear people say it. After every protest, these things are called for but oftentimes ignored. They're often - it is often said that we are going to do it, but then all of a sudden, you know, after months, a few months down the road, those things are forgotten, and we go back to the same old, same old that we've been doing over and over the years that always bring us back to the night that Mr. Nichols was killed. You know, we're right back at this moment again after just a few years ago, we was dealing with it, and you had all the protests come about and, you know, everyone saying, we're going to put things in place.


KIRKWOOD: It can't wait. We're going to put this in place. We're going to change. We're going to beef up civilian law enforcement review boards. And afterwards, hey, very little is done.

MARTÍNEZ: A civil rights investigation into what happened to Tyre Nichols is being planned. But, Pastor, I'm wondering if you think there should be a federal investigation into the entire Memphis Police Department.

KIRKWOOD: I think - you know, I think not just Memphis; I think every police department, all right? We just had a shooting a few months - what? - in January, up in another area, another city in Tennessee where a man was killed by officers. You know, I think every police department needs to be examined. We need to truly look and see how we have been policing in our communities. Why do we continue to do the same thing over and over and over, when we know it always brings us back to protests? We hear people complaining every day, and what - we'll hear people come back and say, well, we have a good relationship with the community; our police department has a good relationship with the community. And then you have to come back and say, which community are you talking about?


KIRKWOOD: You know, you have to ask, which community are you talking about? Because if you come down in certain communities, you will find that, no - all right? - we don't have a real good relationship. You know, you may have a good relationship in this segment of the African American community or this segment in the Hispanic community, but overall, if - when you're raising your hand, when people - when you ask...


KIRKWOOD: ...Do you have a good relationship with your police department, and people don't raise their hand, and they begin to complain, you have to pay attention to that.

MARTÍNEZ: Pastor James Kirkwood chairs the Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board in Memphis, Tenn. Pastor, thank you very much for your time.

KIRKWOOD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.