It’s Time to Raise Our Hiring Standards

Law enforcement and communities nationwide have come together in recent weeks to condemn the actions of five Memphis police officers who are being held responsible for the brutal beating and death of 29-year-old Black motorist Tyre Nichols.

On the evening of January 7, Nichols was pulled over by police for suspected reckless driving. What appeared to be a simple traffic stop quickly turned violent. According to a statement from Memphis police, a “confrontation occurred” between the officers and Nichols following the stop. Nichols fled the scene on foot, and then “another confrontation occurred” that resulted in Nichols’ arrest. During the second confrontation, body-camera footage shows that Nichols was aggressively beaten by police. Nichols was taken to the hospital in critical condition, where family members reportedly said that he was beaten so severely that he was unrecognizable. Nichols died from his injuries three days later.

On January 20, officers Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills, Emmitt Martin, Justin Smith and Tadarrius Bean were terminated from the Memphis Police Department and subsequently jailed and charged with second-degree murder, as well as aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression. (At the time of this writing, a total of 13 Memphis Police employees have been disciplined or are under investigation in relation to Nichols’ death.)

The tragic incident galvanized lawmakers, activists and civil rights organizations to renew their calls for police reform on the federal level, with legislation that would increase police oversight and accountability, ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants and more. Law enforcement leaders and groups also responded to the incident with furor, emphasizing that the heinous actions of the involved officers were not representative of the men and women who honorably serve the profession. Many groups, like our statewide partners at PORAC, said the horrific incident highlighted the need to make sweeping changes to improve the profession as a whole, such as nationwide standards on use of force and increased training on the duty to intercede, as well as other alternatives to force.

In addition, the Nichols murder shone a spotlight on another concerning issue in the profession: relaxed hiring standards. In recent years, agencies nationwide have revised their hiring policies to be less stringentin order to fill their depleted ranks. However, while loosening requirements has the potential to attract more people to the job, agencies must contend with “less desirable” job candidates, Mike Alcazar, an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a retired NYPD detective, told the New York Post.“They’re desperate. They want police officers,” he added. “They’re going through it, they check off some boxes, saying, ‘OK, they’re good enough, get them on.’”

But hiring on those who are just “good enough” comes with immense risk. These candidates are not screened as thoroughly, and as such are not adequately assessed to determine whether they’re fully qualified mentally and physically for the job. The consequences of expedited hiring can be fatal, as evidenced by the Nichols murder.

It was reported that two of the officers involved in the incident — Bean and Haley — joined the department in 2020 after it had relaxed its hiring requirements in 2018. The department substantially lowered its educational requirements, eliminating the need for an associate’s degree or 54 semester hours of college (decreased to 24 hours in 2022) and allowing recruits to move along in the process with just five years of work experience. Additionally, the department cut out its timed physical ability requirement and began offering waivers for prospective recruits who had been convicted of felony charges.

Furthermore, Haley had been hired on to the Memphis P.D. even after being accused in 2016 of allegedly assaulting a prison inmate with two other corrections officers. According to a federal civil rights complaint, the officers had accused an inmate of flushing “contraband.” Haley and another officer allegedly punched the inmate in the face, and the suit further alleges that a third officer slammed the inmate face-first into a sink and onto the floor.

“While recruitment, hiring and retention have been challenging due to the political climate and increased anti-police sentiment we’ve faced in recent years, lowering hiring standards further isn’t the answer, and the profession needs to take a hard look at the consequences for doing so,” LAAPOA President Marshall McClain says.

“Tyre Nichols’ death was inhumane and completely preventable. The deplorable actions of the officers illustrate that the profession needs to improve its standards in all areas,” McClain continues. “In addition to working on mitigating excessive force use through robust training, we need to ensure that our hiring practices help us recruit the best of the best — meaning that we should be raising the bar, not lowering it, and focusing on the quality of candidates hired, not just the quantity. As we have seen, dropping standards can lead to hiring those who will participate in misconduct, corruption and other wrongdoing, and, ultimately, degrade the profession.”