J. Pharoah Doss: Tennessee repeals local police reform: was the repeal Republican paternalism?

Members of Memphis’ SCORPION unit were behind the brutal beating of a suspect. City of Memphis via AP

George Lakoff’s book, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Con­servatives Think, makes a dis­tinction between left and right through parenting approaches. He modeled the left after a nurturing parent and the right after a strict parent. A nurturing parent over­protects to prevent undesirable outcomes, while a strict parent prepares for them but acknowl­edges their inevitability.

Recently, a Lakoffian conflict erupted in Tennessee between the Republican-controlled state and the Democratic city of Memphis over a municipal ordinance commemorating Tyre Nichols.

Tyre Nichols was stopped for reck­less driving in 2023 by members of the Memphis Police Department’s SCORPION unit. SCORPION, a specialized unit, patrolled high-crime areas, focusing on gang and drug-re­lated offenses. Members of SCORPI­ON took Nichols from his car, pepper sprayed him, tased him, and beat him up.

Nichols died at the hospital three days later.

Police body cameras filmed the majority of the deadly incident. The footage indicated that the police offi­cers had no grounds to pull Nichols over, and their actions were unlaw­ful. The Memphis Police Department quickly fired the officers, charged them with second-degree murder, and disbanded the SCORPION unit.

The president of the National Fra­ternal Order of Police argued that the actions of the officers involved in Nichols’ death did not constitute legitimate police work or a traffic stop gone wrong. So, dismantling the SCORPION unit was an overreac­tion. However, eliminating an overly aggressive unit was not enough for Memphis Democratic lawmakers. Nichols’ death prompted the Mem­phis City Council to enact “progres­sive police reform,” and local Dem­ocratic leaders passed the Driving Equality Act.

The Driving Equality Act did not prohibit Memphis police from con­ducting traffic stops for primary vio­lations such as reckless or aggressive driving, but it did prohibit traffic stops for secondary violations such as expired registrations, a license plate that was not securely attached to the vehicle, a single broken brake or headlight, and a loose bumper.

The Memphis Democratic law­makers, along with police reform supporters, believed that eliminating minor traffic stops would eliminate unnecessary interactions between officers and citizens. Nichols’ parents backed the Driving Equality Act. Nichols’ mother argued that the new legislation was required because traffic stops for minor breaches amounted to one thing: harassment of Memphis’ Black citizens.

Prior to the state’s intervention, Lakoffian parenting approaches were on full display in Memphis.

Memphis’ executive branch and police department emphasized individual accountability. They fired the implicated officers and dis­banded the SCORPION unit. Even though the president of the National Fraternal Order of Police believed that dismantling SCORPION was an overreach, Memphis’ executive branch held that single unit respon­sible for the harassment residents complained about.

From the perspective of a strict parent, these procedures were suffi­cient.

Nonetheless, Democratic lawmak­ers stepped in as overprotectors, enacting an ordinance to minimize harassment by limiting interactions between police and residents. (It’s as if Democratic lawmakers separated the two because they couldn’t play nice together.)

There were two problems.

  1. The SCORPION officers had no valid grounds for stopping Nichols. Thus, secondary traffic violations had nothing to do with the Nich­ols case. The SCORPION officers claimed they pulled Nichols over for reckless driving, but the Driving Equality Act does not prohibit police from stopping people for reckless or aggressive driving.

Shutting down the SCORPION unit was not an overreach; howev­er, prohibiting police officers from initiating minor traffic stops was. Democratic lawmakers insisted that the minor traffic stops they prohib­ited were unnecessary to ensure public safety.

  1. Law enforcement officials argued that secondary traffic stops were necessary for maintaining law and order and making felony arrests. As a result, the Driving Equality Act undermines local law enforcement’s ability to provide effective policing because Democratic lawmakers pri­oritized lowering police harassment in high-crime areas. (During the first two months of operations, SCOR­PION made 566 arrests, including 390 felony arrests, and seized 253 weapons and 270 cars.)

The Republican-controlled state of Tennessee intervened and repealed Memphis’ police traffic stop reforms. The governor agreed with state Republican lawmakers that Nichols’ death needed to result in account­ability for the SCORPION officers who abused their power, not new limits on how police conduct traffic stops.

Naturally, the Republican-con­trolled state perceived the intricacy of the matter through the lens of a strict parent, but Democratic law­makers accused the state of pater­nalism. (Definition: When persons in positions of power restrict the authority of subordinates for the subordinates own good.) According to state Democratic lawmakers, the repeal not only negated Memphis’ police reform but also eliminated local political power. Justin Pearson, a popular Democratic state represen­tative, suggested that his Republican colleagues signaled that local Black policymakers don’t matter.

Political rhetoric and posturing aside, it was the Memphis City Council’s paternalistic treatment of the Memphis Police Department that got preempted, not the local govern­ment’s political power.



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